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‘Gamblers,’ Episode 6: The Bookie Who Switched Sides

Joey Fortuna didn’t just want to make money. He wanted to beat the bookies at their own game. He wanted to be the best.

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Gamblers is a podcast about men and women who live by their wits and wagers. People who bet big on themselves, and won. From a road-hustling pool shark to a punk-rock horse handicapper to a sports bettor who could move lines, the six-part anthology series focuses on the fascinating lives of professional underground gamblers and how they make their money.

Joey Fortuna started out as a bookie when he was a teenager working at a pizzeria in New Jersey. Eventually he switched sides and became one of the best sharps in the game, a sports bettor so powerful that he could move lines with his bets. This is the story of Joey Tunes.

Once Joey realized he could beat the bookies, he hired people to run his businesses for him and he spent his every waking hour doing research and building his own models, creating his own point spreads, trying to find mistakes in the sports betting marketplace.

“It literally consumed everything,” Joey says. “Once I stopped really doing that business, I wouldn’t even go in at that point. I guess it was around 2004, 2005 when I really started. Like I had the multiple monitors set up and I was down there until 2:00 a.m. trying to put together ratings for the next day. I’d be up early trying to catch the market sleeping.”

Soon he was making serious money. So he moved from working on his laptop at the counter of his pool hall to hiring a staff and operating out of a real office.

“When I first began, it was more about the numbers—or what you’d call the steam or the info—or just analyzing the market and seeing that certain indicators would go in a certain direction,” Joey says. “I knew the market was going to go so I picked up on that and I took advantage of either weak bookies or weak shops. That was part of my game. Still is today, I would never leave that.”

“I was also obsessed with handicap because it was like a personal thing, being an originator and having my own work, and doing my own work, and being proud that it was my work. That became the bigger part of my game.”

There are two types of sharp sports bettors. The steam players are the ones who watch all the numbers, the various prices and point spreads offered by sportsbooks around the world, and try to guess which direction the market is headed. They’re a lot like day traders in a way. And a lot of steam players don’t give a shit about the actual teams and players and games. They’re just analyzing the numbers.

The other type of sharp players are handicappers. These are the players who come up with their own models for how a particular game should play out, and they create their own prices and point spreads for the games. When the point spreads and prices differ from the bookmakers, they bet the side where they think the bookmaker is off. If their models are better than the bookmakers, they will win. It’s a big if, but for handicappers who are consistently better than the bookies, they earn the bookmakers’ respect, and they can make the lines move with their bets. That’s why they are called originators. While steam players are going to make money, originators make money and get the pride of knowing their work was better than the books. Joey bet plenty of steam, but he wanted to be an originator, especially when it came to his best sport: college football. He didn’t just want the money. He wanted to beat the bookies at their own game. He wanted to be the best.

“I wanted to be great at it,” Joey says. “I wanted to get the best of numbers.”

“Originators are very rare—in fact, I would say good originators, ones that definitely have an edge, are extremely rare,” says Captain Jack Andrews. (That’s obviously not his real name. But he isn’t hiding his identity from the police—he’s hiding it from the bookies. He’s a sharp sports bettor, and an expert on the sports-betting industry.)

“Probably if we go with the assumption that only the top five percentile of sports bettors actually win long-term, I would say that probably 10 percent of that five percent are people that can originate or can win just based on originating their own line,” Captain Jack says.

Joey’s drive to be seen and respected by his peers as an originator pushed him to try to handicap every sport, which was simply too much work, and probably impossible for anyone.

“Then I came to realize, ‘Look, football is my best sport. I’m the most passionate about it. And I’d rather hone in more on that than try and do hockey, college baseball, baseball,’” Joey says. “It’s unrealistic, especially without hundreds of models, and algorithms, and programs for you to do all that. Back then I had none of that, so I was trying to do everything by myself, and it’s just too hard.”

“I guess [Joey] kind of had a sense that I knew a little bit about what I was doing, knew a little bit of the game, especially in football,” says Nick Toronto, who started betting with Joey when Nick was 18 years old, back when Joey was still a bookie.

Nick and Joey were virtually strangers—only voices on the other end of the phone. But Joey sensed something in Nick and encouraged him to stop betting against him, and come work for him instead.

“He knew depth charts then,” Nick says. “I mean his spreadsheets—you go back to 2012, 2010, in that range—were insane. I mean, he tracked everything. He tracked absolutely everything. I had no idea that half the stuff even existed. Now it’s weird because now a lot of the info that he tracked then is just readily available to anyone, and he had ways of getting it, I guess a little bit before anyone else. That’s why he was good at it.”

Joey asked Nick to compile data that Joey would use for handicapping college football games. And it was no simple task.

“He’d have me scroll through schedules when seasons were coming out,” Nick recalls. “We’d start working on football season in, like, April, when the schedules would come out. We’d look at the back-to-backs, who’s traveling, stuff like that. He’d really dive into the schedule as soon as it came out.

“And then a lot of strength of schedule, points per play was a really big one. I remember diving into points per play. He had several websites. He even had me going on newspapers; he had me looking into local newspapers’ websites and [I was] trying to read articles just to get a little bit of a tip—if this guy was playing, if this guy was out.”

Joey could win, but there seemed to be a ceiling on how much he could win. For one thing, every bookie had a limit. Nobody was going to let him just bet an unlimited amount of money. They all had a set amount of risk they were willing to take on, and from one out to the next, that number could be anything from $500 to $5,000 a game. Not only that, but Joey learned pretty quick that when you’re sharp, bookies don’t want your action at all, so in order for him to get bets down he’d have to continuously find new bookies to bet with. At first he’d find bookies who had never heard of him. But when that became impossible, he’d have to bet through partners, and share his work with other gamblers who would make bets and split the action with him.

But then Joey found that he could always get a bet with the offshore bookmakers, most of whom were headquartered in Costa Rica, where a number of former illegal bookmakers from America had decamped in the early days of the internet to set up legal shops, take bets online, and escape the long arm of the American justice system.

“They don’t care if you’re sharp because they know what to do with the info,” Joey says. “So to them it’s like, ‘I’ll take Joey’s hit at 5k or 10k, and I have a good idea of where the market’s going at that point.”

Offshore bookmakers were doing tons of business, so they had volume, and they could afford to take a five-figure bet from Joey even though they knew he was sharp. Still, they’d only let him bet once, and they’d move the line based on his action, which meant they assumed his work was probably better than their own work and they should adjust accordingly.

“Once they catch onto you, they’ll mark you as a hot account, and move off you and use your info,” says Joey.

The big problem was that Joey wanted to bet more, and more, and more.

To hear the full Joey Fortuna episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check out all six Gamblers episodes. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.