Seven decades of Las Vegas sportsbook experience join forces at South Point
17 Apr 2017
By Gary Trask
By Gary Trask
At 71 years old, the celebrated Las Vegas bookmaker looks trim and fit as he parks himself on a comfy chair in the sportsbook, dressed in his signature white top and blue jeans. He's still got plenty of spunk and a sharp sense of humor, which instinctively comes to the surface every time he is stopped and greeted by what seems like a continuous string of sportsbook patrons who come over to say hello and pay their respects.
Even still, Vaccaro fully admits that after 42 years in the business — or "the racket," as he commonly calls it — he gets a little more weary on some days than he used to, and this is one of them. But that doesn't mean he's bored with his job, or looking forward to a time when he doesn't have to report to a sportsbook and go toe-to-toe with the betting public.
Quite the contrary.
"Yeah, sure, there are times I get tired, but that's outweighed by those days when I'm energized by a full card of college football on a Saturday, or an NFL Sunday, or something like March Madness, or a Game 7," he says with a sudden rise in his voice. "I love seeing money fly all over the place. I love the cat-and-mouse game we play every day with the sharps. I love watching someone who's not a big bettor get all excited and jump up and down when they cash a $20 three-team parlay.
"That's the kind of stuff that keeps me going, even after all of these years."
Helping the cause is the fact that he's always had an experienced and trusted partner by his side at South Point, enabling him to cut back on his duties in recent years.
Vaccaro left his job with William Hill U.S. in 2013 to be reunited with South Point owner Michael Gaughan, the man who gave him his first job way back in 1975 as a dealer at the Royal Inn Casino on the north end of the Las Vegas Strip. The South Point sportsbook was already in great hands with veteran Bert Osborne running the show. Vaccaro was hired to offer his vast knowledge of the business, help make key decisions and spearhead the addition of new technology and initiatives.
When Osborne retired early last year, Gaughan immediately went out and recruited Chris Andrews, another prominent — and familiar — Nevada bookmaker. Andrews cut his teeth in the business working for both Vaccaro and Gaughan at the Barbary Coast more than three decades ago, so his hiring at the South Point was "a no-brainer," according to Vaccaro.
"It was an easy decision," says Vaccaro, who also opened the sportsbook at The Mirage for Steve Wynn in 1989 before stints in Vegas with MGM Grand Hotel & Casino Las Vegas and Golden Nugget - Las Vegas, as well as the Atlantis at Paradise Island Resort and Casino sportsbook in the Bahamas. "He's familiar with me, familiar with Michael. He understands what Michael wants from a race and sportsbook. It's really been great having him back. He's very good at what he does. He really has no weakness."
Andrews is a Pennsylvania native, like Vaccaro, and moved to Las Vegas in 1979 to become a ticket writer at the Stardust before moving to the Barbary Coast. Two years later at the age of 25, Andrews, on a recommendation from Gaughan and his father, Jackie, was named sportsbook director at Club Cal Neva Casino in Reno. He spent 22 years in Reno before coming back to Vegas to work for the Golden Nugget, Leroy's and William Hill.
He founded a sports betting site, AgainstTheNumber.com, in 2012, but sold it last year, which meant the phone call from Gaughan looking to hire him came at an opportune time.
"Honestly, it was an offer I couldn't refuse," says Andrews, 60, who officially started at the South Point in late February of last year. "I've remained friends with both Jimmy and Michael over the years, and it's great to be back working with them. I couldn't ask for a better situation right now."
An outsider may assume that having two stalwarts from the industry behind the same counter would cause friction, with egos and strong personalities clashing. But thanks to their long history together and respect for each other, that hasn't been the case in the least.
"Chris is the boss, and he has the final say on everything," Vaccaro says with a wry smile. "All final decisions are his, and that's why he's the one who gets the first phone call from the guy upstairs when something goes wrong. All I do is walk around and point fingers."
When told about Vaccaro's assessment of their working relationship, Andrew lets out a hearty laugh, before setting the record straight.
"Technically, I'm Jimmy's boss, but it doesn't work that way around here," explains Andrews. "The fact of the matter is, I relish having Jimmy by my side. We don't do anything major without running it by him. He's an invaluable source of expertise and information. I'd be foolish not to tap into that, and, believe me, I do."
No matter whose story you believe, "the guy upstairs" certainly feels the pairing of Andrews and Vaccaro was a wise business decision.
"The bottom line is that we're very, very lucky to have both of them," Gaughan tells Casino City. "They broke into the business together. They are friends. Chris is probably the best in the business at what he does. Jimmy doesn't want to run the place. But he's very involved and is at his best when there's a problem. We've also got a tremendous asset in Tom Blazek, who runs all of the scheduling, admin, hiring and firing. He takes care of that stuff so Jimmy and Chris can do their thing with the numbers. It works perfectly."
"All I know is that they don't let me make any decisions," he adds with a chuckle. "If I try to, they throw me out of the place."
With Andrews and Vaccaro joining forces, South Point boasts more than seven decades of sportsbook experience. They are both as "old school" as it gets, with backgrounds that started long before there was such a thing as a computer-generated ticket or a halftime bet.
That doesn't mean, however, that the South Point sportsbook is stalled in a prehistoric time. In addition to a spacious casino floor, poker room and bingo hall, the resort features 11 restaurants, a spa, a 400-seat showroom, a 16-screen Cinemark movie complex and a state-of-the-art 64-lane bowling center. It's thriving because Gaughan demands that his staff do things differently to keep the current customers happy and attract new ones.
The sportsbook is no different.
"People love to go on and on about the old days, including myself, but if you want to survive in this racket, you can't sit there and talk about how good it used to be," Vaccaro says. "Hell, I don't even know how to change the friggin' channel on all of these TVs. But I know enough that we need to adjust and adapt as the industry changes. That's why I've been able to hang around and keep a job for so long and keep myself off the street."
Case in point: The mobile sportsbook app. Gaughan made it a priority for Vaccaro to help launch the app when he hired him and, as a result, South Point was one of the first books in the state to provide its customers with the technology when it was introduced, just before the 2013 football season. Today, more than 50% of the sportsbook's handle comes from the mobile app.
Since Andrews came on board, South Point, one of the lone books in town to be open 24 hours, has also become known for hanging creative prop bets and being among the first to offer football season win over/unders or season-long point spreads. They are also not afraid to employ other unique tactics that draw people off The Strip and to their location six miles south of Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, such as charging -105 on all March Madness bets rather than the customary -110, or never shifting the "juice" on a game when there is lopsided action, instead simply adjusting the point spread.
"It's really just using common sense and giving the customers what they want, without giving away the store," says Andrews, who is very active on Twitter at @AndrewsSports. "Me and Jimmy have been doing this essentially our entire lives. And we've both been known to make a wager or two of our own, so we know what it's like to be on both sides of the counter. That means we understand the mentality of the bettors and what appeals to them.
"I don't want to criticize others, but some of our competition out there is being run by corporate guys who came up the ranks through marketing and PR. Jimmy and I were raised on the street. That makes a big difference."
The South Point sportsbook has received an extra share of publicity over the last few months since the Vegas Stats & Information Network (VSiN) set up shop and began broadcasting its daily radio shows, dedicated to sports betting, on SiriusXM Radio. Gaughan greenlighted and aggressively pursued the construction of the studio steps away from the sportsbook, and has been very happy with the attention it has brought to the resort. Brent Musburger, the renowned play-by-play man known for his sports-betting acumen, retired from ESPN earlier this year to move to Vegas and now headlines the VSiN programming, giving it instant credibility. Andrews and Vaccaro, along with Vinny Magliulo — another bookmaker with nearly four decades of experience, who is now VSiN's VP of marketing — are regular guests on the shows, providing their insights and often telling stories of days past.
"It's bigger than I ever thought it would be," Gaughan says proudly. "It's been very well received, and by the time football season rolls around, it's really going to explode."
In the meantime, Andrews and Vaccaro continue to ply their trade, using their deep knowledge and experience as a weapon in the spirited battle for sportsbook customers in Las Vegas.
How much longer will they remain knee-deep in the "racket," posting odds and sweating out last-second field goals and buzzer beaters?
For Vaccaro, the answer is simple.
"I'm still having fun and I'm in a good place," he says. "I've always said that most bookmakers are crazy. But it ain't going to make me crazy. Believe me, kid, I'll know to get out well before it does."
Ten years younger than Vaccaro, Andrews' plans are more long term. His uncle, Jack Franzi, aka "Pittsburgh Jack," has been a staple in the sportsbook business since the 1970s and has been a mentor to Andrews.
"He just turned 89 and he's still going strong," Andrews says. "When the subject of retirement comes up, he always says to me, 'You're going to quit doing this and then do what!?! Sit around and wait to die?' He's right. When people retire, they either relish it, or it kills them. I think I'd be in the camp where it would kill me.
"So, for right now, Jimmy and I make a great team. Michael is happy. The customers are happy and the sports-betting business is on the rise. I hope what we've got going here lasts for a long, long time."