Gamblers is a podcast about men and women who live by their wits and wagers. People who bet big on themselves, and won. From golf and chess hustlers to a Super Bowl handicapper, Season 2 focuses on the fascinating lives of professional underground gamblers and how they make their money.
We are sitting in a parked car dividing up about $170,000 in cash into backpacks.
Everyone in the car is looking around, paranoid about every person that passes on the sidewalk or drives by. Not paranoid because they’re doing anything wrong—this is all aboveboard, and they’ll pay taxes on every penny. They’re paranoid because they have $170,000 in a backpack in downtown Las Vegas, and they don’t want to get robbed.
There’s more money than backpacks, so they stuff about $20,000 into my bag without blinking an eye, and we split up and fan across Las Vegas with the cash. It’s a little over a week until Super Bowl Sunday, and that doesn’t give these guys very much time to do what they need to do: Bet every single dollar they have, like a page right out of Brewster’s Millions, on the Super Bowl.
Over the next week this team would bounce from casino to casino in Las Vegas, drive across the border to Arizona, and even fly to Atlantic City. At times it would feel like a heist, and in a way it was, but it wasn’t illegal. They were trying to get down as many bets as they could for the big game. By kickoff, the total amount at risk will be well into the seven figures.
The leader of this crew is nothing like Ace Rothstein from the movie Casino. He is a soft-spoken 36-year-old from Virginia with an economics degree from Yale. An avid sailor and a student of Zen Buddhism. He’s got money—a lot of it—but he doesn’t live in an ostentatious mansion. He prefers a small apartment in downtown Las Vegas with little more than a bed and stacks of books about politics, history, psychology, and religion. By appearances, you’d never make him for one of the most important and successful sports bettors in the United States.
His name, honest to God, is Rufus Learned Peabody.
“In terms of how much your time is worth, [the Super Bowl] may not be the most lucrative thing in the world,” Rufus says. “But it’s in your DNA once you start doing it.”
We are at the Westgate SuperBook, one of the largest and certainly one of the most respected sportsbooks in Las Vegas. It’s the Thursday the week before Super Bowl Sunday, 10 days until the Los Angeles Rams and Cincinnati Bengals kick off. And it’s here that our story really begins, because this is the day that the Westgate puts up their Super Bowl props.
Most of us, if we bet on football, bet on either the side or the total. The Super Bowl, however, is not just another football game. It’s a global event, with more than 200 million people watching around the world. And when it comes to gambling, there is no event like it. Billions of dollars are bet on the game every year, mostly with illegal or offshore bookmakers.
Here in the United States at regulated bookmakers, most of that money isn’t bet on the total or side. It’s bet on props.
A prop bet is a bet on literally any other outcome in the game besides the side or the total. Like how many receiving yards a certain player will get, or who will score the first touchdown, or whether the first play will be a run or a pass, or whether there will be a safety, or overtime, or whether the coin toss will result in heads or tails.
Since Westgate has way more props than anyone else, and they usually have them up first, the professionals like to be able to bet them right away.
A lot of these gamblers are looking for arbs, or arbitrage opportunities, meaning numbers that differ from the numbers at other sportsbooks either in Las Vegas or overseas, and they’re going to bet both sides to lock up a small profit.
Rufus, however, has a different strategy. He has created computer models for each of the hundreds and hundreds of different props and made his own projections, and he’s betting on the ones that differ from his. Gamblers like Rufus are known as “originators,” meaning their action originates the line movements that everyone else in the world reacts to.
When originators find something with value, they want to bet as much as they can, because there’s no guarantee those lines will stay where they are.
The morning after our busy day at Westgate, Rufus and I are up early, driving through the desert in his BMW, headed for the Arizona state line.
As we drive, he’s describing his entire operation, which consists of teams of people across the United States and in the United Kingdom who are sharing information and splitting action on the bets they make.
It’s important to do it this way, he tells me, because one person—at least, a sharp bettor as good as Rufus—can’t bet millions of dollars on a single game. Hell, they can’t even bet $10,000.
His way around this is to partner with a network of more anonymous gamblers so he can be in action on hundreds and hundreds of small bets all over the world.
Rufus has to hold up his own end, however. That’s why we are driving to Arizona. The state recently legalized sports betting, and they allow people to bet on their phones. But you need to be located inside the state to bet.
These companies are licensed state by state, and their technology is good. You can’t fool it. You need to be in the state, and not just standing on the state line. In our case, that meant driving deep into the middle of nowhere, a remote truckstop 20 miles past the state line, where we parked so that Rufus could deposit about a hundred thousand dollars into a few online sportsbooks and rip off some bets.
“Oh, fuck,” Rufus says. “I triggered the approval screen. I didn’t want that.”
To hear the full Rufus Peabody episode, click here, and be sure to follow on Spotify and check back every Wednesday for new Gamblers episodes. This excerpt has been lightly edited for clarity and length.