There’s a break in the action in Las Vegas

A Chicago bartender-turned-high-stakes gambler based in Nevada details how the virus has blindsided his profession.

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Sports bettor Van Smith (not his real name) glances toward T-Mobile Arena and southwest Las Vegas from the window of his high-rise condo in the center of the Strip.

Rob Miech/Sun-Times

LAS VEGAS — As that Thursday, the last day of April, melted into the first day of May in 1981, Van Smith left Sweetwater and hit the town with pals and Braves starting pitcher Gaylord Perry.

Inside the North Rush Street establishment where Van tended bar, he and Perry had become chummy, leading to extra carousing innings. Van, 22, was developing a taste for sports betting as he began carving out a career in the food-and-beverage industry.

In those ensuing wee hours, an epiphany struck him. Perry, the 42-year-old spitball master, was scheduled to start that Friday afternoon against the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

Out on the town, Van and his buddies alerted other friends, via telephone calls, about what was transpiring: ‘‘Yeah, he’s pitching in a few hours . . . and he’s loaded.’’ They all loaded up, wagering on the Cubs.

Some even might have been among the 2,656 in the crowd that 46-degree afternoon, further cooled by a 21 mph wind whipping in from the outfield. In the bottom of the first inning, they must have grinned when Perry wild-pitched Cubs up to second and third. An error allowed a run to score.

But that was it. Perry went the distance in the Braves’ 2-1 victory, a very good day to be a Chicago bookie. Perry faced only 19 batters in the last six innings, one more than the minimum.

Threw like the Hall of Famer that he was, Van says of Perry, who won 314 games and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

‘‘The only time in my life when I ever . . . ’’

Van doesn’t finish the sentence.

Decades later, he admits to never having possessed such supposed juicy inside information, such a can’t-miss proposition. A sure thing.

Wising up

Born and bred in Indian Head Park, near La Grange, professional sports bettor Van Smith lives at the epicenter of the sports-gambling universe in a high-rise smack in the middle of the Las Vegas Strip.

He long had vowed to move to Las Vegas and support himself via sports wagering. He pulled it off in 2016 and hasn’t dipped into substantial savings or investment accounts.

He learned hard lessons by impetuously blowing through a quarter-million dollars in a few decades, requiring a bail-out loan or two from his mother and brother. He has fashioned a regimented system that now returns dividends.

Van Smith, however, is not his name.

I had met him at a Fourth of July pool party, hosted by mutual friends, in 2017. Unassuming and soft-spoken, he addressed how he makes a living. Often, the decibel level of the Vegas sports bettor is inversely proportional to his or her actual professional prowess.

In my book ‘‘Sports Betting for Winners,’’ he guided me so deep inside his notebooks, strategies, systems and offshore business that he was granted anonymity, for obvious reasons.

“I don’t know any frickin’ sports bettor that didn’t have to get their asses kicked before they finally wised up,” he says. “I will reference Stu Ungar. This kid would win millions [at poker], then go piss it away on sports betting, his leak. How sad. I read that book about him.”

Written by Peter Alson and Nolan Dalla and published in 2006, ‘‘One of a Kind’’ covers Ungar’s exceptional poker talents, $30 million in winnings, drug-addled fall and penniless demise, at 45, in a seedy Strip motel in 1998.

‘‘[People] have to crash and burn before they wake up,’’ Van says.

Do not get him started on Illinois taxes and politicos, reasons why he had long aimed to hone his craft in Las Vegas, where it has been legal — “and embraced,” he says — since 1931.

“In Illinois it’s, ‘We want to be your enemy. We don’t want to be your partner. We want to squeeze you. We want to get every nickel out of you that we possibly can,’ ’’ he says. ‘‘It’s [an] adversarial relationship, and it’s terrible.”

Bankrolls and units

Van’s successes enabled him to bump his initial bankroll from $100,000 to $200,000 after his first 12 months in Nevada. Today it’s $300,000. His average wager (or unit) is 1 percent of that bankroll — staple terms for the cutthroat industry’s disciplined participants — from which he rarely deviates.

His options are few these days because the coronavirus pandemic has shuttered the sporting world. Las Vegas casinos began closing March 18. In fact, money wagered in state sportsbooks in March dropped 76% year-over-year, according to the Nevada Gaming Control. About $141.2 million was wagered, down from a record $596.7 million last March.

Some sportsbook apps are open, but two-legged events are scant. He taps into the Costa Rica-based BetUS app on his smartphone and calls out Taiwanese baseball, short-league hockey in Russia, soccer in Nicaragua and English darts as far-away options.

‘‘And a cricket Quarantine Cup,’’ he says. ‘‘The more they offer, the better off they are. I’m sure they’re limiting wager amounts because, in Russia and other places, if you want to fix something, you probably could.’’

He drives his South American girlfriend of a few years to work most mornings. She rents a home in the foothills of Henderson, to the southeast. A mother with grandchildren, she rings twice a day to check on him.

A lifetime bachelor, he’s in his early 60s and sports Belushi-type features, including a few extra pounds that worry the fit woman in her mid-50s. In his condo, he has two large bookcases, still adorned in pink-and-blue Easter lace, whose volumes include Louis B. Mayer, Clark Gable and John Wayne.

He takes regular walks outside his building, down the Strip to the fabulous WELCOME TO sign, where he can count visitors on one hand. He circles back, seeing only scattered homeless people, construction workers and police officers.

In his building, a gloved mask-wearing female elevator attendant wipes metallic number panels with a cleaning concoction and a rag every time a box alights on the ground floor.

During a recent visit to his condo, I had planned to watch the first hourlong episode of Showtime’s 2019 four-part “Action” sports-betting documentary and ask him some questions, not to overstay my welcome. I would view all four chapters, spending nearly six hours with Van — he enjoyed having company.

At one point, he sold 100 shares of Wal-Mart stock — that he had bought hours earlier — for a per-share profit of $3.

The couple had dined out March 9 to watch the Golden Knights play the Oilers in Edmonton. He kept bowing his head, telling her he was seeking scores on his phone. Her native language is Portuguese, so she believed that to be some sort of euphemism, slang that might include fetching notes from other paramours.

He realized something had not been translating. He showed her the device, how he had $4,000 on this game, $4,000 on that one, 16 grand in total on tilts that evening. She got it, telling him, “I never really understood.”

Three days later, the pandemic gripped the globe. They haven’t had a single argument, and they’ve never been closer.

‘It’s in the spread’

Van long had been gainfully employed, rising in management positions of prime casino restaurants and similar enterprises east of the Mississippi. Along the way, he’d befriend legendary Blackhawks center Stan Mikita and former Cubs managers Don Baylor and Dusty Baker, among many sports figures. He has nothing kind to say about Michael Jordan.

He never tapped any for information nor revealed his hobby.

When he borrowed from blood, he knew he would be able to return those sums promptly. He has saved — and invested — wisely. With no income for the next 20 years, he would be fine. Still, he aimed to make smart sports bets in Las Vegas and live off those winnings, not touching those reserves.

‘‘I had the light finally shine down upon me,’’ he says. ‘‘I am lucky that my eyes finally got opened.’’

A friend’s recommendation made Van review, then apply, professional power ratings from certain sources into his equations. He would rely on poll rankings for his college football and basketball selections.

Basically, he has three major sports and three minor ones. Within each, he has various plays he bets until netting specific units of profit. He doesn’t concern himself with injuries, lineup changes or other factors.

‘‘It’s in the spread,’’ Van says. ‘‘If my stuff says, ‘Play it,’ I play it.’’

Ten years of records are contained in two dozen college-lined notebooks he keeps in a drawer of the living-room cabinet. He would make entries, by hand in ballpoint pen, every morning.

Major League Baseball is a wheelhouse. When his most important actionable play hits 16 units, he quits to avoid diminishing returns. Today, that’s $50,000. One trend halts when it hits two units of profit, another at a half, another at five.

It isn’t foolproof, but Perry taught him that lesson long ago. The 2019-20 hockey season started painfully for him, but he stuck with it, pulling the plane out of its nosedive before it smacked dirt. When he neutralized the losses, evening that ledger, he quit the NHL.

‘‘An old-timer once taught me that ketchup is usually best on hamburgers, not for chasing bets,’’ he says.

He had developed a new tack for baseball, placing $500 on season-win-total futures for eight teams. He wagered another $4,000 on those plays, trying to middle victory totals, covering one team’s numbers by a prodigious 3½-game spread.

(Say the A’s had a total of 88 games at one book and 84½ at another. He took under on the former and over on the latter, hitting the jackpot if the A’s won 85, 86 or 87 games, pushing one and winning the other if they won 88.)

‘‘I was either going to break even, no matter what, or win both sides,’’ he says. ‘‘In the worst case, I’d break even.’’

With the baseball season in limbo, though, Van probably can expect refunds. Sports started shutting down March 11 into March 12. He had $10,000 apiece at five sportsbooks. On March 17, he visited three to pull out $9,000 at each property.

His monthly living expenses had been about $10,000, but by not eating out so frequently — at least every other evening — he guessed he could more than halve that nut. He figured $27,000 would get him through the next five months.

The next day, he called a friend who makes daily casino jaunts, clearing about $500 a week by playing blackjack, craps and roulette. Van told him: ‘‘I’ll join you.’’

He planned to bankroll $5,000 for five gambling forays, a thousand per trip, ‘‘just to get the frick outta the house. If I lost that five grand, I’d be done. It never even got to that point.’’

A few hours later, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak announced the imminent closure of the state’s casinos. They have not reopened.

When we spoke, for 2 12 hours, on the afternoon of April 8, he revealed that he had overpaid his taxes — by about $20,000 — a few years ago. He told his accountant to keep it in there to use against future taxes.

Ten grand remained when Van recently told his accountant to cash it out. That had been wired to his account from the Internal Revenue Service that morning.

‘‘Another little cushion,’’ he says. ‘‘I don’t have the pressure that many people have: ‘I’m [bleeped] if I don’t start making money.’ And I’m not jonesin’ for it.’’

Preliminary models for the potential return of some sports entail teams playing in one or two hubs, with no fans present. Should that happen, Van won’t seek action because a home edge is a foundation of his operations.

‘‘Anything involving a neutral site is out the window for me,’’ he says.


He ponders the future. In “Action,” a shameless tout boasts of making $30,000 an hour, $180,000 in a single week, for peddling picks. He drives a Rolls-Royce Cullinan, an SUV with suicide doors and a tag north of $400,000.

That Van is considering entering such a slimy arena is shocking. I’ve only known him to be prudent and respectful, caring about his appearance and what others think of him. Much of that business, though, is shady and sordid. The loudmouth on “Action” displays Super Bowl Sunday receipts of $517,000.

“My incentive, right there,” Van says. “I do not want to take advantage of anyone. I would like to be able to help them make money. Not saying this to be altruistic; I’m saying I’d like to make some money for myself, [too]. When someone inspires me, I aspire to be them. This opened my eyes.”

A man half his age, in his building, has inquired about handling the social-media side of the potential endeavor. They’re toying with website templates. Van would supply the selections.

This, he believes, just might be a sure thing.

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