Sweat in the Game: A Gambler's Grind in the NBA

In the film 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.”

This tedium isn’t a hard and fast rule, though. While the regular season is, for Voulgaris, the grind, he rarely bets on the playoffs, and only then on series lines. I ask him if this allows him to take in a game appreciating more of the aesthetic values than the actual outcomes. “I love playoff basketball because even when I don’t have a bet the stakes are raised for the teams and I find the games exciting.”

What is a hard and fast rule is that every game is an opportunity for Voulgaris to learn, and by extension to make money. “When I watch the games I don’t really watch the games as a fan as much as I watch it with an appreciation for what is going on behind the scenes. I am pretty sure I pay more attention to detail to what is going on away from the ball (especially in terms of defense) than your casual fan. That along with realizing pretty early on that I was better off trying to predict what a coach would do in a given game versus predicting what he should or could do.”

The distinction, he points out, is crucial. “A lot of times I felt as though a team would have success in a given matchup because they could exploit X, Y, or Z only to watch a team do something completely different. I started having a lot more success when I started focusing on what a team would do and how that would work instead of what they should do.” This, as it turns out, is the basic point behind predicitive modeling.

I asked Voulgaris about something he said on the forum twoplustwo: “Database handicapping is extremely overrated, somewhere along the lines people mistook what I was doing for database work and I never corrected them. You have to have a lot of data, but the data just helps you build models either through strict regression or through supposition.” He explains that the difference between database handicapping and predictive modeling is partly what sets Voulgaris apart from the pack in the world of NBA gamblers. “I think a lot of people have databases and they do things like ‘team x does x in a back to back situation’ and they mine their databases for information like that, but that information is by and large useless.”

What Voulgaris does is different. He simulates the outcomes based on the data in his database using his own model of what teams will do given particular matchups. Both his model and his database is extremely valuable. He has spent millions of dollars and countless hours developing it, more than most NBA franchises have spent on analytics. And he has seen many millions in returns because of it.

His success has led some front office personnel to seek out his advice on the down-low. He started consulting with some people who had contracts with teams. He told Pokercast “I was a resource they were looking to mine. There wasn’t interest in having me long term. It was just ‘let’s get as much out of this guy in as short of time as possible.” Everything had to be pretty hush-hush, though. Gambling was still taboo in the NBA. A gambler of Voulgaris’ stature was radioactive to the pristine and wholesome image the NBA was trying to concoct. If he were to give up gambling, though, people in the know were telling him that his lifelong dream, becoming an NBA General Manger, may not be so far-fetched.

Consider this older and wiser Haralabos Voulgaris: all he had to his name was millions of dollars, a powerful and valuable analytical tool, and a first-rate mind. Oh and he also had an opportunity.

Realizing this one would require him to quit his job, and this job was far more lucrative than carrying luggage at the airport. So he did what anyone else would do. He quit gambling and gave up potential millions. And for about a year or two he worked on consulting contracts and took meetings with NBA teams looking to land his dream job, albeit for a fraction of the money he was making betting games.

In the end, however, it wasn’t meant to be. “I’ve been a gambler my entire adult life. I missed it.” He returned to gambling this season after a two-year absence. His experience working with the NBA suits was underwhelming. The world of NBA executives is a network of former players and coaches, people who came up through the ranks and "paid their dues." Far from a meritocracy, often the pecking order in the NBA's front offices has more to do with who you know than what you know. And Voulgaris, being a confident person with strong opinions and little patience, had a hard time fitting in and getting his voice heard. His opinions were just that to basketball executives, merely his opinions. The work was all so subjective.

This wasn’t so in the world of the professional gambler. “There is something inherently rewarding in knowing on a night to night, week to week basis that you were ‘right.’ Profit and loss is the ultimate way of keeping score, and I really missed the concrete right and wrong feedback that you get when you risk your money on an opinion. When you are risking real money on your opinion, you are stripped of delusion.

“In life I find that people have a really tough time being honest with themselves and saying ‘boy was I ever wrong about that.’ But when you are losing money reality tends to set in. I have had a lot of really well-thought-out theories or methods that simply weren’t profitable and it is my opinion that those theories were just flat-out wrong.”

This is true both in life and in basketball, since, as Voulgaris says, “the best teams adapt and the bad teams don’t.” He acknowledges that luck plays a big part in basketball success in the NBA (like Seattle getting the second pick instead of the first and ending up with Durant instead of Oden). But just like in life, you have to make some good decisions along the way if you’re going to make the most out of those opportunities that luck affords you. “A team like Cleveland lucks out and gets LeBron but fails to win a title with him,” he points out. “That is really the small fine difference between the really good teams and the not-so-good teams. The really good teams tend to be ahead of the curve in implementing changes in basketball strategy.”

In Voulgaris’ view, adapting to these changes is often the charge of coaches. “Coaching definitely plays a big role in the NBA.” Consider Thibodeau, Voulgaris says. “His defensive style, especially in regards to how to defend the high pick/screens, have caught on among a few teams. The teams that have adopted this strategy have done better than the teams that haven’t.”

I wonder whether or not in the NBA coaches really make that much of an impact. I remind Voulgaris of D’Antoni’s comments about his job being in practice and trusting the players during the game. I mention the clips of Chris Paul during Game 1 of the Lakers series last week where he was standing on the sideline during the timeout calling the play and telling everyone what to do. Voulgaris sees no contradiction. “It is often tough to separate the differences between in-game coaching and preparation or advance scouting. Even a coach who trusts his players or point guards to make calls during a game has done the job of preparing his team and putting a playbook together.”

This also means that bad coaching decisions have as much of an impact on a game as bad ones. “The NBA is pretty much dominated by the high screen and your ability to hit threes. But you still have coaches like Larry Brown who has eschewed the three-point shot as though it was poison. The best teams in the league take and make a lot of threes and do a good job stopping teams from making threes.”

Voulgaris may disagree with Brown’s strategy, but has some admiration for the gumption. For as much as Haralabos champions opinions that are backed by results, he has an equal appreciation for going against the grain of common wisdom when you think you’re on to something. Common wisdom, in his opinion, is often at odds with risk-taking and as such is often an obstacle to successful strategic adaptations. “I think a lot of coaches make decisions based on trying to keep their jobs." There might be an optimal way to play a game that allows for a higher win percentage but a larger margin of defeat when you lose, he explains. Most coaches will decide they’d rather win less often if it means that when they lose they are getting blown out less often, too.

“In short people are afraid to do anything that sets them apart from the masses. A perfect example of this was that famous Patriots gamble on 4th down versus Indy. The Pats made absolutely the correct play statistically as well as strategically in going for it, but they failed and were roundly vilified in the media. Not many coaches have the luxury of taking risks like that and still having a job so most are happy being mediocre or middling and maintaining job security.”

Haralabos Voulgaris has the luxury to take risks. More often than not, his risks result in reward. Sometimes he’s the victim of variance. In poker, the game that made Voulgaris famous, when he is on the wrong end of variance it’s because of bad luck. The beauty of betting on basketball is that when he loses, it’s often because someone did something interesting. Someone changed it up, adapted their play, and baffled the model. “The year that Orlando made the finals and upset Cleveland, I was fairly certain that Cleveland would win that series and made a few bets along the way. When I lost I was still able to appreciate the brilliant gameplan that the Orlando coaches used to win that series. It sucked to lose, but I appreciated the playoff series all the same.”

This is the real difference between poker and betting on basketball. For someone like Haralabos Voulgaris, someone who understands the game intimately, someone who works harder than anyone at predicting not what teams should do but what they will do, being wrong is a surprise, often an expensive one, but never an emotional one. On one hand he still has much to learn about the game and the way it is changing and adapting, and the loss offers him new information. As a gambler, he is always improving. On the other hand, this is the NBA, the most entertaining sport in the world. And at least you know that if Haralabos Voulgaris just lost a bet, it must mean that somebody on that basketball court did something pretty special. As a fan, he is always entertained.

Haralabos Voulgaris can be seen on the current season of High Stakes Poker, now airing on GSN. He blogs at Alone In The Corner.

David Hill is a writer in Brooklyn, NY. He can be found at Aqueduct when the weather is nice. Follow him on twitter here.

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Kelly said...

"regressive predictive modeling" tag! Great interview.

Anonymous said...

That was a great read. Thanks

Fancy Shoes said...

nice read ! Always entertaining and informative.

Anonymous said...

This is a really really great piece. Very nice job.


Penn State Clips said...

Terrific interview, thanks.

“In life I find that people have a really tough time being honest with themselves and saying ‘boy was I ever wrong about that.’ But when you are losing money reality tends to set in. I have had a lot of really well-thought-out theories or methods that simply weren’t profitable and it is my opinion that those theories were just flat-out wrong.”

This is a key characteristic of all great traders, whether they are trading futures, stocks, or NBA Totals.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Definitely a great start/ reality check to start off this piece; which is the way u should read it. Cast aside assumptions and emotions...be entertained...but most of all LEARN.

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