Billy Walters: ‘Sports betting requires more skill than poker’

Billy Walters, a man considered by many to be the greatest sports bettor ever, believes he is an underdog to ever see wide-spread legalization of the industry that has helped him make hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Who knows, one of these days, maybe there will be somebody up there that will have the guts to do the right thing,” the 65-year-old Walters told in an exclusive phone interview in early February. “But I’m not holding my breath waiting for it.”

In the race for legalization, sports betting is several lengths behind online poker, which has built its case on being a game of skill, instead of chance. Walters is adamant the same case can be made for sports betting. Just like in poker, successful sports bettors must analyze information and use risk management to turn a profit.

“I used to be a professional poker player,” Walters said, “and, they’re right, if you’re a good poker player, it’s a game of skill. Well, betting sports is much more of a game of skill than poker. I’m living proof that betting sports is a game of skill. I’ve won 37 years in a row. If that’s not a skill, then I don’t know what is.”

Walters believes online poker will be approved, and that it could lead to legalization of sports betting. But there’s still plenty to overcome, if Americans are ever going to be allowed to place a sports wager as easily as they can bet on a horse race.

“They’ve legalized lotteries, and you can walk into an off-track betting parlor and bet on any horse race in the country,” said Walters. “And why can they do that? Because of the horse lobby; the people who control the horse lobby have a lot of juice; so does the poker lobby, but there is no such thing as a sports betting lobby. I think they’ll get poker approved, and hopefully sports betting will be next. People are doing it, and they’re not going to stop. It just doesn’t make sense.”

The NFL is another huge obstacle in the fight for legalization. The league’s objection is hypocritical, says Walters, because e of how much interest gambling generates for the NFL.

“Does anyone believe that the NFL is naïve enough not to know that if it weren’t for people betting on sports and playing fantasy football that they wouldn’t have 20 percent of the people that are watching now?” Walters pointed out. “If you’re running the NFL and admit what you already know, then why wouldn’t you want to legalize it? That way, people involved in it are licensed and have to undergo background checks, and it’s regulated, taxed and up front. That’s the most positive outcome for everyone involved.”

Sports betting opponents often warn of an increase in games being fixed, like the corrupt NBA referee, Tim Donaghy, and the point-shaving scandal in the mid-90s at Arizona State. Walters witnessed both, but says those types of nefarious activity have been rare throughout his more than three decades in the industry. He chuckles at notions that today’s professional athletes, who make millions of dollars, would risk it to throw a game that might earn them $50,000.

“Now, pro soccer over in Europe … well, let’s just put it this way … it’s not nearly, nearly regulated as say the NFL,” said Walters. “I got to tell you, the NFL, NBA, college basketball and college football are about as square as it gets.

“From a bookmaker’s perspective and a bettor’s perspective, the integrity of the sports betting market is something that we all have in common,” he added. “If it’s compromised, bookmakers are out of business and so am I. So I’m going to do my best to protect it.”

Sports betting ban more ‘ludicrous than prohibition’

Walters is passionate about what legalized sports betting could do for the United States.

The most intense his soft, but grizzled voice got during the interview was after he rattled off all the benefits of legalization, including tax revenue, creation of jobs and consumer protection.

“This is more ludicrous than prohibition,” Walters emphasized. “Prohibition lasted for what 13 years, before they finally realized that this is insanity. People aren’t going to quit drinking alcohol. And people aren’t going to quit betting on sports. The powers-that-be know that; it’s no secret.”

It’s not a shock that the game’s best player supports legalization and regulation. But the level of Walters’ frustration with the system stood out in the interview. He sounded like he’s sick of the hassle that comes along with simply investing in a football game. And it’s hard to blame him.

“We’re still operating under the same laws that were passed 50 years ago when it comes to sports betting,” he said. “There wasn’t any Internet or cell phones then. But we’re still operating under those arcane laws. It’s ridiculous and makes no sense at all.

“In the past 20 to 25 years,” Walters concluded, “I guarantee you that there are more laws being violated in the first two seconds that the New York Stock Exchange opens Monday morning than there will be in all of sports betting in the next thousand years.”

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