Betting It All On Basketball: A Gambler’s Grind In The NBA

Do The Right Thing, Ossie Davis’ character ‘Da Mayor’ answers a cop’s question with “those who know, don’t tell. Those who tell, don’t know.” So it is in basketball, where there is no shortage of writers, pundits, and bloggers with little-to-no basketball expertise who are offering up their opinions. All the while, lurking in the shadows of the league, there are oddsmakers and the handicappers who try to outsmart them, hoarding an understanding of the game that rivals most NBA front-offices.

Haralabos Voulgaris is among them. He makes his living outsmarting oddsmakers. And his is a very comfortable living, indeed. One of a small handful of people who turns a large yearly profit betting solely on the NBA, Voulgaris is known to move the lines with his action, which can sometimes be as high as $80,000 a game. He has built up a network of employees, a database of statistics, and predictive models that far surpass what many NBA franchises have available to them. And aside from a small break he took from gambling a few years ago to try to land a job with a team, he has earned his living this way for over 15 years. Haralabos knows. And while he isn’t telling, he is talking. He spoke to me on the eve of the playoffs. He wouldn’t tell me who he was betting on, but he had plenty to say about basketball, gambling, and life.

Voulgaris got the gambling bug at an early age. His father was a gambler, and Voulgaris has fond memories of growing up around the racetrack. “My dad really had a lot of gamble to him,” Voulgaris shared with me, “which I guess is a nice way of saying he was borderline degenerate.”

I can sympathize. My own father was a borderline degenerate gambler himself. And my childhood was also spent hanging around the racetrack. Learning to read the Daily Racing Form around 9 years old was one of the first skills my father ever taught me. Voulgaris also picked up some lessons around the track with his dad. “I learned a lot from my father, but most of the stuff I learned was what didn’t work.

“I learned that if you didn’t have an edge on something you weren’t going to win. I learned that if you didn’t moderate your temperament and think rationally, no matter how big your edge was you probably aren’t going to win long term.” Voulgaris paused, “And also I learned that in life you have to be willing to take risks because quite often the biggest gamble of all is just sitting around waiting for the perfect opportunity that may not ever come.”

This was a lesson Voulgaris clearly took to heart. After high school he went away to college to study philosophy at the University of Manitoba. While there he started up his own skycap company at the airport and in two years he managed to scrape together $70,000.

Consider young Haralabos Voulgaris: all he had to his name was $70,000 and a degree in philosophy. But he also had an opportunity.

The opportunity he had was that the oddsmakers were offering 6.5-1 on the Lakers to win the championship in 2000. The year before, the Lakers were eliminated in the second round of the lockout-shortened playoffs by the Spurs. But this season Voulgaris liked them to win it all. He thought the line was an overlay. So he did what anyone else would do. He bet his entire life savings on a 6.5-1 bet that would take over six months to decide. Then he waited. Six months later, after many nights of eating ramen noodles, many days of slinging luggage, and a 15 point deficit in the 4th quarter of game 7 against Portland, the Lakers were crowned NBA champions, and Haralabos Voulgaris had a half a million dollars.

From there Voulgaris gave up on the skycap business and started betting more and more on each game. He limited his gambling primarily to NBA basketball, but not because it was the easiest game to bet on. He told twoplustwo’s Pokercast “basketball is the least exploitable sport. It’s tough to model. That’s why so few people have success betting it and why I’m able to corner the market.” But he also expressed a deeper appreciation of the game itself. “In basketball the expression of athleticism comes out more. The best athletes are playing basketball.” When I asked him about being a fan he told me “I really just love NBA basketball. I love the sport, I love the drama around it and love the characters. I go to quite a few games and I love sitting courtside at a game because it’s the only sport where you are that close to the action.”

For Voulgaris, there is often more action than for the rest of us. While we sweat our favorite teams, or even the gamblers among us sweat out the point spread, Voulgaris is often sweating the totals, meaning he has a rooting interest in Every. Single. Possession. On almost every game of the night. On just about every night of the week during the regular season.

“I love totals,” he said to Pokercast. “When I’m watching the game, I love calculating if I’m on pace for the total. You really start to know which players are good for offense or defense or both more than any other way of watching basketball when you are betting the totals.”

This takes its toll on Voulgaris, however. “It can be more nerve wracking. When I first started betting I would turn down the volume on the TV and turn on a metronome.” He tells me, “the regular season definitely feels like a grind for me. There have been years where I have just taken a month off here and there because it felt like too much of a grind.”

The grind is what makes Haralabos rich. His predictive models rely on an immense amount of data that is constantly being updated. This requires him to watch a LOT of NBA games. “A lot of what I do is just watch more basketball than any other human,” he told Pokercast. “I watch about 400 games from beginning to end. I watch at least one or two quarters of maybe 85-90% of games. I may just watch every defensive possession or every offensive possession or just watch particular lineups or matchups.”

I share with Voulgaris my own experiences as a gambler, how hard it is for me to appreciate a good game when I have a bet on it, since the outcome of the game or the excitement and drama of a great game is secondary to the sweat I have. His experience is different. “One of the reasons why I feel like I have such an accurate understanding of the game is because I have to learn WAY more when I am watching a game I have action on,” he says. “I find when I am watching the previous day’s games, which I do a lot from noon until 3 p.m., my mind wanders a lot and I don’t retain nearly as much information as I do when I actually have a sweating interest in a game.”