By the time Bob Voulgaris was 25 years old, he was regularly putting down over $1 million in bets each day on the NBA. He is now one of the most well-known and successful sports bettors on the planet.
What’s even more impressive is that he has shown that he can not only sniff out an edge, but also adapt and find new ways to win over time.
The Las Vegas Trip
Voulgaris was born in 1975 and introduced to gambling by his father when they first took a trip to Las Vegas. By his own admission his father was a terrible gambler. He would bet on anything from card games to the hottest penny stock of the day.
While Bob Voulgaris was only 18 years old and not allowed on the gambling floor to watch his father play blackjack, he spent his time watching NBA at the Caesars Palace sportsbook. It was during that time that he was really able to both observe the game itself and also those betting on it.
The time spent in Vegas with his father sparked something inside Voulgaris and from that moment on he spent every waking hour consumed by the idea of finding an edge and betting on it.
In the late 90’s and early 2000’s Voulgaris hit his strides as a punter after he found a huge edge over the bookmakers. As he knows well, it’s tough to beat the house. So when you find something that works you need to milk it for all its worth, and Voulgaris certainly did.
He uncovered the simple way that bookmakers set their half-time totals. At the time bookies simply took what they thought was the likely full-time score and cut it in half. However, basketball isn’t as simple as that.
In the final term when the games are tight there are often higher scores than expected. Timeouts, numerous trips to the free throw line and players getting fouled out make for higher scoring quarters.
As a result, basketball needed to be viewed as separate quarters when looking at the points totals and not as an entire game. The edge that Voulgaris had at the time was huge and he hit it hard. He was winning 70% of the time which is a phenomenal strike-rate in a two-way bet. He won millions of dollars over a five year period. Voulgaris has said his only regret was that he didn’t bet bigger.
However like all edges, they come and go. By 2004 the bookmakers had sharpened up their totals lines and Voulgaris started to lose, and lose big. After having such a sustained successful run he wasn’t prepared for the losses. He’s admitted to going on ‘tilt’, or what we might call chasing.
After dropping a number of large bets he eventually realised that his edge was gone and he needed to go back to the drawing board. So he did what smart punters do in this situation, which is to step away from betting.
The Ewing Theory
By 2005 Voulgaris realised that the only way to gain a decent edge was to build a computer model. There had been stories floating around about the successful computer-based gambling teams operating in Las Vegas and Hong Kong and Voulgaris knew he needed to build his own.
So in 2005 he took his decent bankroll and got to work. He knew he couldn’t do it alone so he started looking for a maths and stats whiz to work on the project. After much trial and error, he eventually plucked a national maths champ from the hedge fund world and they set about building their own model.
Early on it was slow going and it took two years to roll out version 1.0. They named it Ewing after the “Ewing Theory”, which suggests that when a team’s overrated superstar leaves, the team, in fact, plays better.
Voulgaris continued betting based on his own nous while the model was being built.
The goal of the Ewing model was to be able to take any two teams and simulate a match to the point that it could churn out an accurate predicted scoreline. That meant they had to break the game down to possessions and assess the game on a play-by-play basis.
This was a great time for Voulgaris to begin building his own model, as only a few years prior the NBA began releasing detailed statistics on the games that previously weren’t publicly available. By the time he got underway there was enough data available to build reliable models and do some testing.
By 2008 the model was ready, although the initial results were anything but impressive. They had an edge but it didn’t convince Voulgaris that it was all that remarkable. The team spent the offseason trying out another ‘secret’ tweak to the model and by 2009 things really started to take off. Ewing 2.0 began crushing it and the results were outstanding.
The model was finding about 1000 bets per season and in the 2010-2011 NBA season, Ewing produced a 6% ROI. However, performance has slowly declined since then. In 2011-2012 it produced a 5.14% ROI. Each year the returns have decreased, therefore the number of bets must increase to maintain the same profits.
These days Voulgaris continues to bet on the NBA as well as playing some high stakes poker. There’s no doubt he is one of the most successful punters on the planet and has the ability to not only find an edge but also adapt to the changing betting landscape.