A Gambling Man Finds His Game in Las Vegas – Billy Walters

Dave Kindred

The paperboy saved his money every week for two years. The bankroll got up to $75. Then along came the 1955 World Series, and the man running the grocery store said, “Betcha the Dodgers win.” Seeing as how no one in his little Kentucky town loved Mickey Mantle and the Yankees more than Billy Walters did, the paperboy said, “Betcha.”

He had made the money on a route bought by his grandmother, who signed a bank note guaranteeing he’d do the work. Up before dawn seven days a week, back at work every day after school for the afternoon run, he loaded papers into his bicycle’s handlebar basket and pedaled around Munfordville.

Forty-six years later, someone asks Billy Walters, “Did that seem fair, a little kid betting his life’s savings with the town grocer? Was he taking advantage of you?”

Walters laughs. “I may have been taking advantage of him. The Yankees always won.”

Alas, not that year. After the Dodgers won a World Series for the first time, the paperboy delivered his bankroll to the grocer.

Now, in the soft light of an elegant Las Vegas office, Bill Walters, 55, says, “Since then, I’ve absolutely never had a loss that stung as bad as that one. I once lost a $2 million bet. Not even close to as bad as losing that $75.”

Such a story, the Bill Walters saga. And one need not be a cynic to suspect hyperbole when the storyteller is often the only witness; after all, as a reliable source reports, “Billy has the gift for gab.” The source: his wife of 25 years, Susan, who adds with a smile, “You know, he got his start selling used cars.”

We’re in Bill Walters’ office because the old Kentucky paperboy is now a reformed golf hustler, high-profile football gambler, and golf course developer whose name gets in the news with a regularity that is both dismaying (to him) and entertaining (to us).

There are the three indictments on state money-laundering charges. There are the suggestions he buys political influence. We’ll get to those.

But first let’s get little Billy Walters to Las Vegas. He can name five pool halls in Louisville where he made serious nine-ball money until, at age 16, “I decided there was no future in a poolroom.”

The future, as he saw it, was in poker. And horses and football. In taking bets as well as making bets.

Though illegal in Kentucky, gambling thrived under the benign gaze of grown-ups who saw no injury done. Walters reckons 500 bookmakers worked in Louisville in the 1960s, reputable businessmen all. However, with the ascendancy of Bible Belt political moralists, and after a bookmaking conviction, Walters wanted to go “where you could do whatever you’re big enough to do as long as you didn’t run out of money.”

Hello, Las Vegas.

Soon came a time when Walters hustled golf at such prices that he now says, “I didn’t know anybody who played for higher stakes. I probably won more money than Jack Nicklaus. Of course, I didn’t keep all of it. Or much of it.”

A 3-handicapper disguised as a 16, Walters says he once made a 40-foot putt worth $400,000. Such stakes prompted him to buddy up with a 300-pound pro football player whose visage of menace assured peace among the competitors. (“You took your clubs home every night, or they’d change the loft and lie. They’d re-grip your putter a 16th of an inch thicker. They’d shoot balls full of mercury. They’d have magnetic putters and lead ball markers, so they’d press the mark and carry it five feet forward or a foot sideways to take the break out of a putt.”)

One day in 1975, Walters hooked up at the Dunes Golf Club with another gentleman gambler. They had met at the annual golf summerfest put on by Jack Binion, casino owner and patron saint of Las Vegas risk-and-reward scalawags.

“For three months, we’d been stalling–translation: throwing off,” Walters says. “Neither one of us ever broke 90.” One game led to another led to a $100,000 nassau. Then, faced with his opponent’s 78, Walters revealed an ability to shoot 74. He won $550,000. As to how that much money is delivered, Walters says, “In a bag.”

“A bag?” someone says. “You get $550,000 in a bag?”

“Easy. Hundreds.”

“What do you do with $550,000 in a bag?”

“I spent it. In two days.”

Anyone who can empty a bag of hundreds that quickly is capable of self-destruction on a grand scale; or, as Walters puts it, “The over-under on me was 39 years old, and not many guys took the over.”

He remembers going without sleep for four days while drinking enough alcohol to float Caesars Palace, only to snap out of the binge with a life-changing insight. “When I realized the casinos wanted you to lose, not win, and when I realized I had to stop drinking, I had a completely different outlook on gambling,” he says.

It became a business. With handicapping colleagues who created computer programs to interpret point-spread puzzles, Walters’ famous “Computer Group” revolutionized football betting in the mid-1980s. (It also drew a federal gambling indictment that resulted in an acquittal so obvious that Walters says, “We kicked their ass.”)

Football continues to be good to Walters. He says he has won as much as $500,000 on a single NFL game. In a business where a bettor can make money being right 54 percent of the time, Walters says he is at 57 percent.

“Talk about your great American success stories,” says another Kentuckian in Las Vegas, the Caesars Palace casino marketing executive Dan Chandler. “Nobody came out here riding more on the rims than Billy Walters. Now he pays his IRS bill in the strong seven figures.”

Another casino boss calls Walters “one of our famous local desperadoes, a guy to avoid,” while Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith says, “Bill’s in that long line of characters who come to town with a foggy background, been in trouble before, makes a lot of money gambling, grooms his image, is generous both philanthropically and politically, and they wind up building a statue to him.”

Walters has created a Las Vegas golf empire. No easy thing for a man who says, “I hate desert golf.” So he spent $145 million on four upscale public courses. “We have wall-to-wall fairways. You don’t need a welder’s mask and a snakebite kit.” In five years he refurbished three courses at Stallion Mountain and built Desert Pines, Bali Hai and the wonderfully Vegas creation Royal Links (each hole “inspired” by classic holes of the British Open rota).

Among those taking notice of Walters’ work were prosecutors in the Nevada attorney general’s office. As if believing all that money couldn’t have been made legitimately, the deputy attorney general has produced three indictments charging Walters with money-laundering crimes growing out of his football business with New York bookmakers.

The state’s problem is, each indictment was dismissed before trial. For one thing, if folks making bets with bookmakers were to be arrested en masse, handcuff manufacturers would have to operate their factories 24 hours a day just to take care of Las Vegas churchgoers.

For another, prosecutors never established a connection between Walters’ betting, his bookmakers and the New York mob. “A real stretch,” the columnist Smith says.

Still, those prosecutors have kept $2.8 million of Walters’ cash seized from Las Vegas casino safe-deposit boxes. Their theory: It’s dirty money. The reality: Storing cash for betting purposes is standard Vegas practice, and Walters is furious.

“I’m not naive; I’ve been around the block,” he says. “But I had no idea how vindictive these people could be. As bad as it all is, the worst part is what it does to your reputation. It hurts you with all the money lenders. If this has cost me a nickel, it has cost me $100 million.” He may yet file a civil suit against those people whom he considers tormentors.

In addition to the criminal proceedings, Walters has been criticized for using political influence to gain sweetheart deals with public entities. One deal provided water at one-fifth of some prices. Walters’ argument: He gave value to land that had none.

Now we’re in Walters’ silver Mercedes gliding from Desert Pines to Royal Links. He’s on the speakerphone asking, “See any 311/42 yet?” He’s looking for 311/42 points on a Monday night football game.

He says to a passenger, “Had a bad day yesterday.”

The passenger asks, “What’s ‘bad’?”

“Lost a million bucks.”

Says it casually. Drives on.

COPYRIGHT 2002 New York Times Company Magazine Group, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group

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