Walters is a generous talker but not particularly sunny. In an interview last week, he was happy to examine the psychology of gambling but less inclined to explore his own. He’s a gruff competitor and a lifelong practitioner of numbers games. As he recalls in Gambler, he first started betting while growing up in poverty in Munfordville, a roughly 1,700-person farming town in Kentucky, and visiting pool halls beginning at six years old. “I learned who craved competition and who crapped their pants in crunch time,” he writes. “That knowledge made me dangerous from a young age.”
During our conversation, Walters discussed the development of his career, the evolution of sports gambling over his lifetime, and his competitive streak across his hobbies and occupations—golf, car dealerships, investing. These excerpts have been edited and condensed.
Vanity Fair: You have a lot of stories. A lot has happened to you. At what point did you think, I need to write a book?
Billy Walters: When I was in prison, and my daughter committed suicide, I knew I had to write a book. And I had several things I wanted to accomplish in the book. I wanted to help people who have issues in their life, whether it be addiction, or whether they have other issues in their life. When sports [betting] got legalized, it was like a dream come true to me. I’ve been hoping sports will be legalized my entire life, all the years I bet sports. Now it was legalized. I wouldn’t have sold this information for $20 million a year ago. I wouldn’t even have thought about it. But sports is legalized now, I can see a lot of people have gotten involved with sports, and so I put everything in this book that I know about sports betting, everything I’ve learned in all the years I’ve been doing this.
Now the millions of new sports bettors that we’ve got, I almost couldn’t believe it when I decided to write the book. There’s no information out there whatsoever telling any sports bettor, OK, what is the fair price to pay for half a point?
How did we get to this moment of legalization?
First and foremost, the US had been living in the Dark Ages in regards to sports betting. Let’s face it. This has been going on in this country for years and years, over a century. Everybody knew it. But there’s no jobs being created. There’s no taxes being collected. It’s been controlled in large part by people that, you know, aren’t necessarily the greatest people. And all at once the lawmakers finally realized, OK, we can legalize this, OK, we can create jobs, we can collect taxes. And by the way, we can let the American citizens do something they’ve been doing all this time. And they can do it with someone that is going to pay them if they win. And it’s a win-win for everyone because this is going on already.
How does it feel for you on a personal level?
I was in Nevada in 1982 and I had an organized group of people that were working with me, we were doing nothing but betting. And in 1985, our homes got raided, all of our records got seized under the pretense that we were organized group bookmakers and we were affiliated with organized crime. We were indicted in 1991. We were indicted in our home in the gaming capital of the world. The FBI came, they took my wife Susan out in leg irons and handcuffs. They took me out in handcuffs. We finally went to trial in 1992. Not that long ago. We were charged with being part of a criminal conspiracy conspiring to bet on ballgames. Now stop and think about that for a moment. And then after that, we went to trial, we were exonerated. After that I was indicted three more times for basically the same thing, because I was betting on ballgames. I never went to prison for it, because we weren’t doing anything to violate the law. We were paying our taxes, we did everything we were supposed to do. But it still didn’t stop us from being indicted. It still didn’t stop me from spending millions and millions of dollars, my family going through this, my employees going through this. Finally, we’re here today. And you can do it. And you don’t have to worry about somebody kicking your door down and dragging you out in handcuffs.