Robert Kowalski thought he had his dream job when he worked for a Major League Baseball team.
Then he visited Las Vegas and his dream changed.
The 47-year-old from New York decided it was a better bet to work in a sportsbook writing tickets rather than sell tickets to a losing baseball team. So in 2004, he left the New York Mets and landed at the Barbary Coast.
Today, he’s living his ultimate dream — running his own sportsbook — as he is in charge at Baldini’s Casino in Sparks.
“I’ve always been fascinated by sports betting,” said Kowalski, who is currently in his second year in charge. “I remember seeing the lines in the newspaper and I would see these plus signs next to the Mets and I asked my manager, ‘Why are there always plus signs next to the Mets?’
“He gave me a quick tutorial and I was hooked.”
The reason for the plus signs? The Mets weren’t very good and were constant underdogs. And in a way, Baldini’s is a bit of an underdog. It has to battle the bigger companies in nearby Reno and being an independent sportsbook, it has to make its lines attractive to lure bettors into the house.
October 14, 1969: The @Mets return to home to play the first-ever World Series game at Shea Stadium 🏟. History labels Game 3 as the “Tommie Agee Game” after he makes two remarkable catches and homers in a 5-0 win. #LGM #MetsRewind #AmazinOctobers pic.twitter.com/Vrm1NJyLZs— Mets Rewind (@metsrewind) October 14, 2020
“We have a half-century’s experience,” Kowalski said of he and his staff. “That allows us to operate as well as we do.”
It also allows Kowalski a certain amount of freedom.
“I’m out on the floor a lot,” he said. “It’s more of an old-school feel. We know most of our customers by their first name and we can provide a more personal touch.”
That mentality stems from the people Kowalski learned from. Long-time bookmakers Johnny Spot, Vinny Magliulo, Johnny Avello, Art Manteris, Jason McCormick and Vic Salerno have all worked with Kowalski over the years and he has taken a little bit from each of them in formulating his book’s identity at Baldini’s.
“Johnny Spot took a chance on me when he hired me as a ticket writer at the Barbary Coast,” Kowalski said. “The best advice he gave me was, ‘Always know your customer, make sure you know who is coming to the counter, use your visual aids and you’re always going to have a good day.’
“Johnny was absolutely right. Knowing who your customers are is really important in our business.”
Kowalski is representing Baldini’s beyond its walls. He’s in Gaming Today’s 2020 Bookies Battle contest sponsored by Station Casinos and he’s holding his own as Northern Nevada’s lone contestant. He has a winning record through six weeks (47-41) and he is relying on his own power rankings and lines in making his selections.
“I always look at what happens as it unfolds and I see the result and I compare it to my numbers and put it in a small worksheet,” he said. “I come up with a number of my own. Then I compare it to at Gaming Today’s number and look for value.”
Kowalski said even though fans are still not allowed in many NFL stadiums, he does have a favorite handicapping tool.
“I look for home ‘dogs,” he said. “Anytime I see one, I’m usually on it.”
The other challenge for Kowalski and the other Bookies Battle contestants is getting accurate information. It’s especially important for their side of the counter when it comes to making the NFL lines each week.
“It’s a race for information,” he said. “You’re trying to find out as much as you can and factor it into the number you post.”
Kowalski admits it’s a tougher challenge today because bettors have access to the same information and if they can exploit a line that is off, they will.
“It’s always about the ‘dog,” he said. “As a bookmaker, I’m always asking myself, ‘Am I giving away too many points?’ So you really have to stay on top of it but not overreact because things can change from moment to moment.”
Kowalski looks back on that Las Vegas trip in 1998, how it changed his life and what it has led to.
“I worked at Shea Stadium for the Mets for 10 years and it was great,” he said. “But then I went to Vegas and said, ‘This is definitely for me.’ It’s the best decision I ever made."