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Sportsbook icon Jimmy Vaccaro explains his decision to leave Las Vegas and head home to Pittsburgh

1 February 2019

By Gary Trask
Jimmy Vaccaro said that there was only state he would even consider leaving Las Vegas for and it was Pennsylvania.

Jimmy Vaccaro said that there was only state he would even consider leaving Las Vegas for and it was Pennsylvania.

After finalizing his paperwork first thing this morning, former bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro was scheduled to begin his new job at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh today.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Vaccaro, who has spent the better part of the last four decades in Las Vegas putting together a storied career that saw him become one of the most well-known sportsbook figures in the U.S., will start his new gig at Rivers Casino not as oddsmaker, but in an executive marketing role for the new sportsbook that opened its doors in December. Not so coincidentally, the Rush Street Gaming property sits about 20 miles west of Trafford, the small city of a couple thousand people Vaccaro grew up in, and where he learned about sports betting by frequenting local pool halls and gambling parlors as a teenager.

The move has been rumored for the last few months, but Vaccaro remained silent — at least publicly — about his decision to leave his advisory role at South Point Hotel Casino and Spa sportsbook. But on the eve of beginning a new era in the Keystone State, Casino City spoke with him about how it all came about and why he ultimately chose to return home.

"Really, it's not as big a deal as everyone is making it out to be," Vaccaro said by phone from his new digs in Pennsylvania on Thursday afternoon. "It's just that at the tender age of 73 years old, there comes a time when you want to do something different. I'm not running the sportsbook or making big decisions for them, so that's kind of refreshing for me. And to have the chance to do it where I grew up, it’s just something I really wanted to give a try."

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court back in May to abolish the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992 (PASPA), opening the door for states other than Nevada to start legally accepting single-game sports wagers.

Within a few months, multiple states began opening sportsbooks, and Vaccaro admitted the folks at Rivers Casino weren't the only ones to inquire about his services.

"I was contacted by other states about making a move, but there was no way I was going to go west from Vegas, or down south," he explained. "Nothing against those other states, but the only place I was even going to consider going was Pennsylvania."

Sure enough, about five months ago, Rivers Casino General Manager Bill Keena showed up at South Point unannounced and introduced himself to Vaccaro.

"I don't know him and I didn't know he was coming," Vaccaro said. "He came and found me and we had a pleasant conversation. I told him if he wanted to work something out to come back to me with an offer and I'd more than consider it."

A month later, Keena came back to South Point, except this time he brought Rush Street Gaming's co-founder and CEO Greg Carlin with him.

"We talked for a while and they couldn't have been nicer people," said Vaccaro, who still has numerous family members living in the Western Pennsylvania area. "Two weeks later they called me with an offer and I took it. It's as simple as that."

What wasn't so simple was breaking the news to all of his colleagues in Las Vegas, especially those at South Point.

The casino's owner, Michael Gaughan, gave Vaccaro his first job as a dealer at the Royal Inn Casino on the north end of The Strip back in 1975 when he first arrived in Las Vegas as a fresh-faced 30-year-old from the Steel City. Eventually, Gaughan handed Vaccaro the keys to the new sportsbook at the property, and from there his career took off. He opened the sportsbook at The Mirage for Steve Wynn in 1989 and also ran the books at the now-defunct Barbary Coast, MGM Grand Hotel & Casino Las Vegas and Golden Nugget - Las Vegas, as well as the Atlantis at Paradise Island Resort and Casino sportsbook in the Bahamas. In addition, he worked with William Hill when it first broke into the U.S. market.

Along the way, Vaccaro became the most notorious oddsmaker in the business. While at The Mirage in 1990, he garnered headlines for being the lone bookmaker in Vegas to provide odds on the infamous Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas boxing match that is still regarded as one of the biggest upsets in sports history, and he was prominently featured in a recent ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the fight, titled 42 to 1..

Media appearances, both mainstream and in sports betting circles, were commonplace for the affable Vaccaro over the years. He was often a go-to guy for any sports-betting-related story and became a staple on the all-sports-betting-all-the-time VSiN broadcasts that launched in 2017 with the home studio inside the South Point sportsbook. He even made an appearances on The Daily Show and a special episode of The Simpsons, where he broke down odds on who shot Mr. Burns.



"Without Michael, there never would have been a Jimmy Vaccaro," Vaccaro said with a chuckle. "So, of course, he was the first person I went to. To no surprise, he was very supportive. Even though he's 75, he put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Kid, whatever makes you happy, I'm behind it.' Besides being my boss all of these years, he's been a great friend and I'll never be able to repay him for giving me my first job."

Also not a shock: Vaccaro's other friends and co-workers did nothing but wish him well, including Chris Andrews, whom he has known for 50 years and worked in tandem with behind the counter at South Point for the last few years.


"All of my friends were very supportive. I think they might have been a little surprised, but they all knew that Trafford is still very near and dear to my heart," Vaccaro said. "For me, this is exciting because I've been very vocal for decades about how I thought it was silly that other states couldn't have sports betting and let people have a little fun with their money. Now some 30 years later it's come to other states, and I'm still around and I'm still functioning and semi-sane. And I keep telling people they haven’t seen nothing yet. Once this thing gets rolling it's going to be unbelievable, and now I'm going to get to watch it take off right here in my home state. I can’t tell you how good that feels."

As for his new responsibilities at Rivers Casino, Vaccaro said his main role will be "doing media stuff" and helping the new sportsbook gain publicity and write business. He'll provide his insight on what makes a sportsbook great, and he's certain that there will be times that those running the sportsbook and crunching the numbers will seek him out for advice.

"I've truly seen it all, so I'm ready to help in any way I can," he said. "I'm just happy none of the final decisions will be mine."

Never a fan of airplanes, Vaccaro boarded a train in Nevada earlier this week with one bag ("Left pretty much everything I have back there. I'll just buy all new stuff at Target," he said) and 51 hours later he arrived in Pittsburgh. He said he'll miss the Vegas weather and, of course, his daily visits to the spa ("We can't prove it, but nobody has gotten more massages than me over the years. It would be impossible").

But as he prepared for Day 1 in his new role, there was no sign of trepidation or regret in his voice. Instead, there was excitement coming through the phone, from a guy who doesn't sound like he's ready to retire any time soon.

"Look, I still really love being around the book. I love telling stories about the industry, and God knows I've got hundreds of them," said Vaccaro, who planned to spend Super Bowl Sunday in the Rivers Sportsbook. "And people absolutely love hearing them. So, I'll keep telling them as long as I've got an audience. If we get down to one guy sitting there listening and he's slumped over, then I'll know it’s time for me to pack it in. Until then, I'm going to keep showing up."
Sportsbook icon Jimmy Vaccaro explains his decision to leave Las Vegas and head home to Pittsburgh is republished from Online.CasinoCity.com.
 

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Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor. He also manages new business ventures for Casino City.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee and a current member of the Women in Poker Hall of Fame voting panel, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT
Gary Trask
Gary serves as Casino City's managing editor and has more than 20 years experience as a writer and editor. He also manages new business ventures for Casino City.

A member of the inaugural Poker Hall of Fame Media Committee and a current member of the Women in Poker Hall of Fame voting panel, Gary enjoys playing poker and blackjack, but spends most of his time sitting in the comfy confines of the sportsbook when in Las Vegas.

The Boston native is also a former PR pro in the golf-casino-resort industry and a fanatical golfer, allowing his two favorite hobbies - gambling and golf - to collide quite naturally.

Contact Gary at gary@casinocity.com and follow him on Twitter at @CasinoCityGT.

Gary Trask Websites:

twitter.com/#!/casinocityGT