Carrying Wildfire torch

If you’re looking for a throwback, hole-in-the-wall-style Las Vegas sportsbook, take a drive out on the Boulder Highway to the outskirts of Henderson and walk into the Wildfire Casino.

There, you’ll find the odds handwritten on white grease boards, intimate seating, and, more often than not, a friendly young man writing your tickets for you.

Michael Smoller may have been crafted from the 1970s, even though he’s only 37 years old. He’s pleasant, smart and engaging. He’ll talk sports with you all day, especially if you’re from the Bay Area.

“I’m a people person,” Smoller said. “I love sports and this is the perfect job for me.”

The Palo Alto, Calif., native came to Las Vegas in 2009 to become a poker dealer. He worked at the Rio and was turning cards at the World Series of Poker. But while being around such high-powered action was exhilarating, something was missing.

“I needed something more, something different,” Smoller said. “I just felt working in a sportsbook was the right move.”

Smoller talked to John Veltri, who was the general manager of the Wildfire in 2011. Next thing he knows, he’s behind the counter as a ticket writer. He’s still there.

He’s also representing his property in Gaming Today’s 2020 Bookies Battle contest sponsored by Station Casinos, which owns and operates Wildfire. The Boulder Wildfire has a history of doing well in the contest. Last year, his former boss Chris Jenkins made it into the  Bookies playoffs. Smoller, who is 55-47 through the first seven weeks of this year’s contest, is hoping history will repeat itself.

“I was an advisor of sorts to Chris,” Smoller said. “I would send him texts every week with some suggestions for picks and it was great that he did so well.

“This is my first time in the contest so I’m excited to be part of it. I’ve been following it for years.”

Smoller’s strategy is to look for live underdogs and pounce. He’s also adjusting his methodology to account for the coronavirus as it pertains to attendance at NFL stadiums and home-field advantage.

“Some teams are great without fans,” he said. “The Chargers and the Dolphins are good examples. The Saints look like a different team without their fans (in the Superdome).”

The pandemic also forced Smoller to stay busy while the Wildfire and all the other casinos were shutdown from mid-March until early June.

“I got into the stock market,” he said. “My dad had gotten me into it when I was younger, but I got serious about it and I occupied my time focusing on the market.”

Being from Silicon Valley in the Bay Area, Smoller was naturally attracted to a certain kind of stock.

“I’m into tech stocks,” he said. “But I also love casino stocks. I think the casino industry will get better and it was a good time to get in while everything was shut down.”

His love for sports is also deeply rooted in the Bay Area, particularly the NHL’s San Jose Sharks. That puts him in a distinct minority in Las Vegas, where the Golden Knights dominate and where the hate for the Sharks is off the charts.

“I try to go to T-Mobile (Arena) whenever the Knights and Sharks play each other,” he said. “I’ll get some good natured ribbing, but the Golden Knights fans are the best in hockey.

“I also try to get up to the Shark Tank (SAP Center) every year to catch a game. It’s a great place to watch hockey.”

Smoller’s team is one in transition. The Sharks fired coach Peter DeBoer last season only to see him wind up behind the bench of the Golden Knights. Fan favorite Joe Thornton recently moved on, signing a deal with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I’m O.K. with it,” he said. “I’m not angry (Thornton) left. He wants to win a (Stanley) Cup, though I’m not sure Toronto is good enough to do so. I hated DeBoer when he was in San Jose. He didn’t know how to win in the playoffs.”

It may be a while before Smoller sees his team on the ice again as the NHL’s start for the 2020-21 season remains a mystery. But he’s got plenty to focus on at work and that’s fine with him.

“I’m a happy guy,” he said. “I’m very appreciative of what I have. I have a great job. I always come to work with a smile on my face. I love dealing with our customers. What’s there to be mad about?”