Long-time sports bookie Jimmy Vaccaro sits in front of the sports book in Las Vegas
LAS VEGAS — Jimmy Vaccaro has run sports betting in various casinos in Las Vegas for 40 years now. He could quickly calculate the spread for next year’s opening football weekend in his head, but it wasn’t until last summer that he began to get interested in the Super Bowl of politics — the presidential election.
“I’ve been here nine elections so far or something like that,” Vaccaro said. “No one ever asked about it.”
In August, that began to change. Customers came up to the gleaming sports book counter and asked if they could place their money on real estate tycoon Donald Trump instead of the Giants. Vaccaro didn’t like turning them away, so he began releasing weekly odds sheets, calculating each candidate’s chances to win the Democratic and Republican presidential nominations. The sheet is emblazoned with the words “FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY,” since political betting is for the most part outlawed in the United States.
Bettors are a working-class casino a few miles from the Strip that is filled with locals and some vacationers, would take the sheets and begin arguing about their favorites.
“We deal mostly with Middle America,” Vaccaro said. “We don’t have the Asian high rollers, the billionaires. These are the people who are going to make the difference [in the election].”
They’re also Trump’s base. The Republican front runner held a rally at the casino last month, which quickly reached capacity. The overflow filled the hundreds of chairs in the sports book section, and Vaccaro realized this election was going to be different.
“For years and years and years no one would even be talking about this stuff probably at least until the Super Tuesday thing,” Vaccaro said. “So for the first time maybe in our history we’ve got a lot of people saying, ‘I want to try to do something with my vote this year.’”
Vaccaro’s weekly predictions brought the Pennsylvania native a flood of media attention. He’s been on CNN, MSNBC and “The Daily Show.” “I did CNN with that Brooke Baldwin lady, and she said who’s going to win the [nomination], and I said Trump,” he recalled. But Vaccaro also realizes that his ultimate goal — to legalize political betting in the country — is futile. “The Constitution has to be changed, that’s how crazy this is from what I understand,” he said. (Federal and state laws restrict gambling on politics except for some small-stakes predictions websites.) It “bugs” Vaccaro to watch overseas betting sites raking in cash from political betting while he has to stand by.
All the same, his for-fun political odds sheets have helped make the casino into a center of political activity.
Trump is returning to Casino on Monday for an evening rally in an arena that can fit 8,000 people. His message has resonated in a state that was among the hardest hit in the recession.
Vaccaro took a personal hit as well, buying a house for $270,000 at the height of the housing boom that quickly lost half its value. He’s a bookie, not a financier. “I’m the worst businessman in the world, but this, this is just natural. The other thing, I ain’t got a clue, kid. Stick with what you know.”
Vaccaro understands Trump’s appeal, and predicted he would win the nomination back when he was a 20-to-1 underdog. “We know it ain’t no good out there, so we’re thinking, who the hell maybe would help change things a little bit. That’s what the attitude is of what I call the average guy,” he said.
Vaccaro plans to caucus Tuesday and so far is leaning toward supporting Trump. He also thinks Trump will most likely take the state. “Trump I’d give about a dollar 50, which is like 3 to 2,” he said. “And Cruz and Rubio, plus a dollar 30.” That means they’re both slight underdogs.
But Vaccaro is cautious about his prediction. “Everyone was betting on the Carolina Panthers two months ago, too, and they got their butts whupped, so things change quickly.”