Sports Betting Hall of Fame Class of 2021: Jimmy Vaccaro

Image source: South Point Hotel & Casino

Not many people can claim to have starred in a spin-off from The Simpsons and to have inspired the title of an ESPN documentary, but then not many people have enjoyed a career as extraordinary as that of Jimmy Vaccaro who takes his place next week in the Sports Betting Hall of Fame. 

Of course, TV appearances are not the reason that Vaccaro is part of the Sports Betting Hall of Fame Class of 2021. Rather it is his standing as one of the legends of the Las Vegas sportsbook world that has earned him the honor.

Now the Sports Marketing Director at South Point Hotel & Casino, Vaccaro has been one of the best known and most quotable bookmakers in Nevada for more than 40 years. 

The Trafford, Pennsylvania native moved to Vegas in 1975 and found work as a blackjack dealer at the Royal Inn, where he became friends with owner Michael Gaughan. And when Gaughan wanted to launch a sportsbook, he turned to Vaccaro for help. 

It was a process the pair repeated when, after the sale of the Royal Inn, Gaughan opened the Barbary Coast Hotel & Casino in 1979.

Vaccaro recalled: “Michael looked at me and said, ‘Do you know how to run a sports book?’

“I said, ‘No.’ So Michael said, ‘Neither do I. We’ll start it together.’

“I knew about betting sports. I didn’t know how to run a book. We built a little hole in the wall at the Royal Inn. It was a turning point in my life. I’ve been fortunate because I was in the right place at the right time. 

“I knew when I was at the Barbary Coast, this sports stuff is going to go crazy. I love this. I raised two kids and supported two ex-wives, so it’s not that bad.”

Those early days were not all plain sailing and there were costly nights, as Vaccaro told VSiN. 

“Super Bowl XIII was the most memorable one I booked,” he said. “I was at the Royal Inn in January 1979 and the line opened as low as Pittsburgh minus-2½, and we were as high as 5. The Steelers beat the Cowboys 35-31. It was an absolute bonanza for the wiseguys. We lost $185,000. The Stardust blew about $1.4m, and they lost the most. Every book in the country lost. But after two days, everything went back to normal.”

But there were also very profitable nights, including that of the WBC heavyweight title fight between Larry Holmes and Muhammad Ali at Caesars Palace in October 1980. 

“I was running the Barbary Coast book. There wasn’t a break in the line from 8 o’clock in the morning until the last hour before the fight,” Vaccaro said. “We opened Holmes as a 3-1 favorite, and closed it minus-140. Every 10 tickets, eight were on Ali and two were on Holmes. We won like $300,000 at a little joint with hand-written tickets. I enjoyed that fight the most.”

With the experience of those two launches under his belt, Vaccaro quickly became one of the most in-demand bookmakers in Vegas and went on to run the MGM and Golden Nugget sportsbooks in the 1980s.

In 1989, he helped Steve Wynn to open The Mirage sportsbook where, just three months later, another big fight helped to further build his reputation.

When the undefeated, undisputed heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson defended his title against Buster Douglas in February 1990, the Baddest Man on the Planet was expected to win so easily that most sportsbooks refused to offer odds on the result. Instead, they only gave fans the chance to bet on which round Tyson would knock out the outsider.

The Mirage sportsbook was different and under Vaccaro’s guidance opened at 27-1 for a Douglas win. He took some $20 bets, but the serious money all went on Tyson and the price soon drifted out to 42-1. 

Douglas, of course, produced the biggest shock in boxing history – a shock that was presumably particularly keenly felt by the bettor who staked $168,000 on a Tyson victory in the expectation of winning just $4,000. The Mirage won about $300,000 on the fight, but the publicity generated by the line was much more valuable and it really put the new resort on the map. 

Vaccaro meanwhile went on to be immortalized in the ESPN ‘30 for 30’ episode about the fight, which the documentary makers titled ‘42 to 1’. 

It was also during his time at The Mirage that Vaccaro found himself appearing in The Simpsons spin-off ‘Springfield’s Most Wanted’, which aired in 1995. A parody of ‘America’s Most Wanted’, it featured the bookmaker talking about the market on who shot Mr Burns. 

As 26 years is probably too far in the past for anyone to complain about spoilers, it’s safe to reveal that the unlikely shooter Maggie Simpson was a 70-1 outsider.

After The Mirage, Vaccaro spent time at the Atlantis in the Bahamas and worked for the Leroy’s and Lucky’s sportsbook operations in Nevada, before rejoining Gaughan at the South Point in August 2013. A move to his home state with Rivers Casino Pittsburgh followed in 2019, but he soon returned to his spiritual home in Vegas at the South Point.

One of the biggest personalities in the world of sports betting, Vaccaro can now be found talking about the odds on VSiN or Tweeting about the high rollers at the South Point. 

Jimmy Vaccaro will be inducted into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame in a special ceremony at the MetLife Stadium on December 1, 2021, during the SBC Summit North America conference and trade show. This interview features in Issue 18 of SBC Leaders Magazine which is available to read HERE.