20 questions during quarantine with Robert Walker: Bookmaking veteran dishes on Billy Walters, Lauren Jackson and the forthcoming tidal wave of action

Lauren Jackson, Billy Walters (AP Photos)
Lauren Jackson, Billy Walters (AP Photos)
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Robert Walker’s bookmaking philosophy is one the pros appreciate. Walker takes on all comers and uses information provided by the sharp action to get his lines to the right place as quickly as possible. Welcoming the wiseguys is a net positive for the sports betting industry, his thinking goes, as it allows recreational gamblers to bet into better numbers.

I chatted over the phone this week with Walker, director of sportsbook operations at U.S. Bookmaking who has had former stints with some of the biggest betting shops in Nevada, including The Mirage, Bellagio, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay and Stardust. While U.S. Bookmaking operates the books at three casinos in New Mexico, he’s keeping busy during this pandemic with the company’s expansion into newly-legal betting markets. In his downtime, while many sports fans are engrossed in Michael Jordan and “The Last Dance”, the women’s basketball aficionado prefers to watch Lauren Jackson videos on YouTube.

BetIndiana News: How are you doing through all this craziness?
Walker: I’m just trying to be patient, and we’re still working on getting into some other jurisdictions. But it’s frustrating with no real legitimate sports. We’re going into Colorado and Iowa, but we haven’t formally announced our partners in those two places. That’s forthcoming. We have some serious talks in Michigan and DC. I’m from Washington state, so I have tremendous interest in going there for many reasons. We’re following legislation everywhere. We have interest in Virginia. We did have interest in Tennessee, but not anymore.

BetIndiana News: Because of the way the law has shaken out in Tennessee?
Walker: We’re hoping to be a high volume, lower hold sportsbook. I hate to say stuff like this because everybody says it, but we want to provide the best value to the players that we possibly can. (The law is) detrimental for a state like Tennessee. There’s no way for us to hold 10% in Tennessee. And you’ve still got that $750,000 licensing fee and a fairly high tax rate. So until they come off of that, it makes no sense.

BetIndiana News: Do you think this pandemic will spur change in Nevada when it comes to remote signups?
Walker: I think we were on the way already. There was some momentum towards that anyway. On one hand, we say that Nevada is the gold standard; on the other hand, some of the things that are going on are embarrassing. Even in-game wagering, it’s very new to us. …

But I definitely think Nevada will take a hard look at (remote signups). It makes no sense to make you come in, especially when you can sign up for poker online and start betting without going in anywhere. Yet you can’t do that with sports just because they’re protecting a few casinos. The state should be embarrassed by this policy.

BetIndiana News: Are you an active bettor in Nevada? Do you play yourself?
Walker: No, I don’t. I probably made 20 sports bets in my entire life. I have action on every game. I never want to root against the house because that’s my first and foremost priority. I made a few bets where I think I had tremendous value. Most of my bets have been on horse racing, the bigger events, and then on boxing, believe it or not — I was a big boxing fan. It’s hard not to get involved in boxing sometimes. In Nevada, for example, they bet the dog, so there’s (often) value on the favorite. And then vice versa – there’s value sometimes on the dog when the fight’s not in Nevada.

One thing that infuriates me is when our supervisors are rooting against the house. They don’t usually last with us too long (laughs).

BetIndiana News: When I’ve been doing these Q&As, I’ve been asking people what sport they miss the most or what’s the sport that they want to see back? With you, I think it’s pretty obvious — it’s the WNBA. You seem to have a unique affinity toward women’s basketball. Why is that? What do you find special about the WNBA?
Walker: I always joke that the reason I love the WNBA is that when nobody would bet it, we would have small decisions, so I actually had a rooting (interest) as a fan as opposed to a bookmaker. But that’s not the case anymore – it’s pretty mainstream now, which is great.

But I think it stems back to when I was a newspaper reporter coming out of high school and the best game I ever saw was a triple overtime game between two high school teams ranked one and two in the state (of Washington). I remember that game specifically, because when the game was over and the boys were getting ready to warm up, everybody left because the boys’ teams weren’t very good, but the women’s teams were phenomenal.

And then when I came down here (to Nevada), I worked for a couple of newspapers and they would send me out to the women’s games because you gotta prove yourself, right? You go to the girls’ games and if you could write stories for the girls, you could move up to the boys’ games. But I was one of the guys (who said), “I’ll keep covering the women.”

I just fell in love with it. I love women’s college sports and would go to as many games as I could (at Washington State). And when Seattle got Lauren Jackson in 2001, who is arguably the greatest women’s player of all time, I went to as many games as I could.

The game is so unbelievable. I think if (they) gave it a chance, people would like it. Kobe obviously loved it, John Wooden was a huge fan of women’s basketball because they play it the right way. They defend, they shoot, they pass – it’s not an above-the-rim game, so I’ve always loved it.

I have season tickets to the (Las Vegas) Aces. I’m not an Aces fan, but I get to watch all the teams that way.

But (as a bookmaker) it’s not the one sport I’d want back. That would be one of the big four. Football would be the first, but we’re not to that point yet. Clearly NBA would be number one to me. Baseball two. And then hockey three.

BetIndiana News: With no games, everybody seems to be watching “The Last Dance” on Sunday nights on ESPN. Have you been watching?
Walker: No, I haven’t watch one second of it. I am not a fan (of Jordan). I’m one of those guys who says Magic Johnson is the best player of all time, and I’ll go my grave thinking that.

BetChicago: Can you recall any good stories from that Bulls era as a bookmaker?
Walker: We got crushed one year on the series price when Chicago beat Utah, and I don’t remember what year that was (editor’s note: I surmise it was the ’97 NBA Finals when the Bulls were -600 on the series price). I tell my son how much we lost, and he goes, “You must be the worst bookmaker of all time. How do you not know that the Bulls are better than the Jazz?” I tried to explain to him that there’s a number, right, you’re laying 5/1 or 6/1 or whatever. I remember now like it was yesterday. His first question was, “What it your money?” I said, “No, no, that’s the MGM Mirage’s money, but still I’m responsible,” and he said, “Well, what kind of idiot are you?”

My son clearly had no idea what I did for a living. We had a seven-figure swing on the Yankees-Arizona Diamondbacks game (seven) when Mariano (Rivera) gave up that little flair (to Luis Gonzalez), when (New York) lost the game and the series to Arizona that year (2001). I told my son that was a seven-figure swing for us, we need the Yankees. And he was literally jumping up and down when Arizona hit that for the winning run, and he goes, “I don’t care, I hate the Yankees.” I’m like, “You don’t even care about your father at all.”

BetIndiana News: Give me one bold prediction for the upcoming NFL season (editor’s note: In his typical loquaciousness, Walker offered several. Here are a few of them):
Walker: I think the Rams are going to be horrible. They’re going to keep sinking down. …

I think Jacksonville is going to be really good. I’m biased because (QB Gardner Minshew went to Washington State). But I think Jacksonville can make a good run. …

And I think New England’s gonna be really good. It’s a new era, but it’ll be fun to see how they adjust (without Tom Brady). Buffalo is in the sweet spot right now, right? But I think New England wins that division still.

BetIndiana News: Big news in the sports betting world last week and this week — Billy Walters is out of jail and now under house arrest. When you first saw the news that he was being released, what was your reaction?
Walker: I dealt with Billy for many years, and he’s one of the very best. He’s legendary as far as sports betting goes. My first thought was if he decides to get back in sports betting – which there’s no guarantee that he will – there are ample opportunities for him, there are new states.

We would welcome him at any one of our places. Our places have lower limits than some places, but we would see him just like any other customer as long as he clears KYC (Know Your Customer protocols) and everything else. He’s going to bet one way or the other, whether it’s through other people or not. But he’ll put us in the right spot, let me tell you that.

BetIndiana News: Any stories you can share about Mr. Walters?
Walker: I dealt with him when I was at the MGM Mirage, and he was always straight up with me. Sometimes he wanted to get higher limits than we were able to give him. My thought process always is – with anybody, not just him – why would I want to give you a higher limit at a better number? …

If he bets, you better do something. Sometimes he’d bet the wrong side (opposite of what he liked to manipulate the line) – so it’s up to you how much you’re going to move it.

And a lot of people followed him as well, so he was responsible for a ton of handle. And there are people that bet games for him, and you didn’t know that they were involved with him. I didn’t really care too much about as long as you weren’t circumventing the limits.

BetIndiana News: What else is going in quarantine? What’s on Netflix? Have you read any good books, any new podcasts you’re tuning into? How are you spending some of your downtime?
Walker: I just got done with the The Last Kingdom?

I really love history, so I’ve been reading every book on the Khans that I can. I had four books – from Genghis Khan to Kublai Khan – they were just magnificent. And I’ve been watching a lot of history shows on YouTube.

I’ve watched (former Seattle Storm forward) Lauren Jackson play probably 20 times. I don’t think she gets the due that she (deserves). The WNBA wasn’t as big as it is now. I’ve watched a lot of her, I watched her retirement party. I’m kicking myself because they retired her jersey in 2016, and I could have gone up there and watched it.

It’s fun because I thought it would be a really cool thing to do to book these games as long as you sign a waiver where you can’t remember the score. So we take $5 bets from everybody, but you gotta promise that you don’t remember the score.

I’m embarrassed to say I’ve been watching “Chuck” for like the 17th time. The show that I love and I’ve watched almost every night, especially if I don’t want to watch something intense, I watch an episode of “Quick Draw” on Hulu. That show lasted only two seasons, but that show was phenomenally funny.

BetIndiana News: What’s the best habit you’ve picked up during stay at home, quarantine?
Walker: Well, I’m in terrible shape, so I started working out and I’ve been fasting every day. I’m a stress eater, and I’m in the wrong profession for stress eating, no doubt. I thought it would be easy to do (during this downtime), so I fast 16 to 20 hours every day, one or two meals. It’s helped me prepare, because I don’t have as many groceries, and I try to work out four days a week. So once we go back to work, I gotta maintain this. Because you work six, seven days a week, 12 hours a day and your health goes to hell. I’m also drinking about a gallon of water a day.

I’m really concerned about my dog because now he thinks I’m home 24/7, and he literally starts barking at me if I’m on the phone or working for a couple hours, because he wants me to go sit on the couch and watch TV. I think he’s gonna have a nervous breakdown when I go back to work.

BetIndiana News: Any bad habits you’ve picked up?
Walker: I stopped napping about a week and a half ago, and I think that comes down to having more energy.

The one huge mistake that I made was I shaved my head, and I couldn’t get the back of it. So I have long strands of hair in the back, and my daughter (Lindsay, a hub supervisor at U.S. Bookmaking) won’t get it because she’s social distancing, so whenever she comes over, she doesn’t want to get around me.

I’m excited to get back to work. The bookmaking clock is ticking, and I want to get moving forward.

BetIndiana News : So when do you think that is? Give me a predicted date for the first game back for one of the four major leagues.
Walker: I think it’s going to be in July. July 1st is a target date potentially, somewhere in that vicinity. I think once one league comes back, there will be a mad rush for them all. I think you’ll see the same thing with casinos – nobody’s going to want one casino to have an advantage. And then we’ll have some metrics. I’m concerned about a second go-around that’s worse – I’m praying that doesn’t happen – but July 1st is kind what we’re banking on, but that’s such a fluid date.

BetIndiana News: We talked about remote signups, but what other changes do you see happening with the sports betting industry because of this or coming out of this?
Walker: eSports is going to have to be talked about, and in Nevada, in-game wagering is going to be monstrous, it’s going to take off. I think it’s going to be bigger than it would have been if we had not had this.

And the first month that we open, I think you’re going to see a huge increase in handle and then it will start to level of. People will be so excited to watch actual games, and the level of excitement always corresponds directly to the amount people bet. The reason people bet so much on the Super Bowl is the magnitude of the game.

But I think all the states have to look hard at remote signups. Even in Iowa, you can’t do remote signups, and we know why that is – people didn’t want DraftKings and FanDuel to have an advantage. But they still have an advantage – they have a huge database based on years of fantasy that nobody else has.

BetIndiana News: What’s one positive or one lesson that we can take from this?
Walker: Well, I was hoping that we would come together as a nation because we’re so politically (divided) — and I’m part of that problem, by the way, because I’m so far left that I’ve fallen off of the cliff. I was hoping we’d come together, but that ship has probably sailed.

But one thing I would say about sports it is healing. It healed us after 9/11. It was (important) to come back and watch a sporting event and just get some normalcy back. I’m hoping that sports provides that.

I think what we’ve learned will be revealed down the road. We won’t know it in the midst of this, we’ll know it in hindsight.

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