Bookmaker Spotlight: Baldini’s Robert Kowalski Eyes Industry’s Future

Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Baldini’s director of operations Robert Kowalski was working for the New York Mets when his career trajectory changed in a big way.

Kowalski credits former co-worker and good friend John Giglio with putting him on the path to a career in bookmaking. Giglio, who could often be found scouring the Daily News for MLB odds, mentioned that the Braves were coming to New York to play the Mets. These were Atlanta’s halcyon days, with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine dominating as starting pitchers. Giglio mentioned that the Braves were “-200”.

“But what does that mean?” Kowalski asked. That one question and subsequent tutelage from Giglio changed everything.

“I’m so grateful to him for introducing me to this beautiful world,” Kowalski said.

Aside from Giglio, Kowalski mentioned South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews as an influencer in his career.

Chris Andrews is absolutely one of the most respected directors I’ve ever met,” he said. “I can’t think of a time when I called his cell phone, and it went to voice mail. He always picked up a call from me, and I can’t thank him enough for how much he’s taught me.”

In 2004, Kowalski found himself working as a ticket writer at the Barbary Coast a couple days before March Madness.

“Baptism by fire,” Kowalksi recalled.

That first official industry gig eventually helped pave the way for Kowalski to be named director of operations at Baldini’s, which started operating as an independent shop in Sparks, Nevada, back in 2019. He’s been there ever since.   

Gaming Today caught up with Kowalski to discuss industry trends, his involvement with the peer-to-peer betting exchange ZenSports, and a newfound love of betting underdogs in Bookies Battle 2022.

Gaming Today: In-game betting has become such a big part of the business. Is that true at your shop, and if so, how much has the percentage of live bets grown in recent years? 

Robert Kowalski: I wish it was a lot higher. We have a very capable operating system, but we pick and choose what NFL games we want to do in-game betting on. We can’t offer it full live. It gets good play, but I would think it would make up a trace amount, at least in my part of the state. They’re still kind of warming up to it; it’s more of an older-school (clientele).

Gaming Today: Does Baldini’s take any sharp action from bettors coming in from the Vegas area because it’s only an hour or so away? 

Kowalski: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, “Wait a minute, you flew in from Summerlin or Henderson for this? Can we at least sit down and have some breakfast before you fly back?” It’s just the way they do it. From a compliance perspective, you have to come to the counter and present all of the valid IDs and forms to fill out. It’s that one first trip that you need to make, and then it becomes a lot easier (using the mobile app).

Gaming Today: What does handle and hold look like for you on the NFL so far?

Kowalski: If I go back to Sept. 1 and look at our hold for pro football, we are growing year over year, and we’re up about 10% in handle. Football has been good, not very good, but good. We’ve had a couple of games go sideways on us, but in general, I like our position. We’re at about 6-7% holding of what we’re at for handle for side, total, moneyline. We’re holding our own.

Gaming Today: What’s the biggest bet you’ve written on the NFL this year?

Kowalski: We took a $10,000 bet, and I thought that was a pretty significant amount because we don’t have a hotel here. It’s a great local place, and we’ve had (customers) coming here for decades. It’s not a stop where someone’s gonna come in and drop a significant wager during the football season.

Robert Kowalski, bookmaker, Baldini's

Gaming Today: Tell us about your parlay cards. It’s a blast from the past, right?

Kowalski: We have pretty wild action on our parlay cards. They come in and want to play them because the pay table is so strong. It’s called a reward card, where ties reduce and it pays a consolation. We’re gonna pay you five out of six, six out of seven, all the way up to nine out of 10. It was done many, many years ago, but I don’t think anybody else is doing it in the state right now. It absolutely caught on like wildfire.

Gaming Today: Ties reduce, and they don’t lose?

Kowalski: Exactly. That was a policy from day one. I told the owner and general manager of the casino, I want to be as friendly a book as we possibly can make it. Ties never, ever lose on parlay cards here. Our two-team teasers are -120. I think the pricing is honestly very strong as to what’s out here, at least in northern Nevada.

Gaming Today: What’s the worst bad beat you’ve had, whether it came in front of or behind the counter? 

Kowalski: I’ll be shocked if this hasn’t already been said. The safety to start the Super Bowl (in 2014) between the Seahawks and Broncos. I felt so much pain and agony that I really didn’t even want to watch the rest of the game. “How did this happen?” “Why is this happening to us, and how am I going to explain this?” (Laughs)

Editor’s note: It has been said before in this Bookmaker Spotlight series. Golden Nugget’s Tony Miller recalled the same worst beat.

Gaming Today: How about your favorite sport to book and why?

Kowalski: I really enjoy booking and watching soccer. We book all of the tier-one leagues across Europe. I love to book soccer and go into each league and figure it out. There’s no greater factor in any sport than relegation. Things in this country would change so much if you could take the Pirates (in MLB) and relegate them. Obviously, with the World Cup coming up, I’m stoked about that and getting all of the markets up and ready.

Gaming Today: Do you have a lot of bettors that focus exclusively on arbitrage opportunities? 

Kowalski: Yes, absolutely. It’s a big piece of the business. As a bookmaker, if you decide to ignore that factor, you’re living in the matrix. I hear it now more and more from guys (that don’t even know players on teams) … all they know is that there’s pennies to be made on the margin, and there it goes. It changes the perspective of the business, and there’s really not much that you can do about it. You could ban them, but that’s just not something I’d do. I never really thought about it until the advent of mobile sports betting and all of the outs that you can now have from one state to another. It’s an arbers’ paradise.

Gaming Today: You’re a bookmaker by trade but also involved with ZenSports, which removes the need for a bookie as a peer-to-peer betting marketplace and exchange. How’s the app doing? 

Kowalski: It’s built, and it’s really done well. Many hours and weeks have been spent by some really sharp engineers with my eyes on it and the chief of product, Mark Thomas. We meet constantly. ZenSports, as we were developing it and looking to get ourselves regulated and licensed in multiple states and jurisdictions, was acquired by KeyStar. Now it’s really going to rev and ramp up all kinds of production. 

Gaming Today: Where do you see the future of peer-to-peer going in the next five to 10 years?

Kowalski: I’m really excited about what I think is going to be the endgame of bookmaking, and that’s the exchange platform. Peer-to-peer betting is also built into it. It’s just the way of the world. It’s something that’s inevitable, although the exchange platform will probably take a steep learning curve, especially for states like ours that have been so used to sportsbooks. It’s gonna come and eventually much like mobile betting, which was something that was brand new, is now taking up the vast majority of bets on a bookmaker’s log. We’ll never do away with a counter experience; we’’ll always have that. In fact, I demand that. 

Gaming Today: It’s probably difficult to peg with so many states and jurisdictions involved, but when do you see Zen Sports becoming available in the marketplace?

Kowalski: With KeyStar’s acquisition of ZenSports, we’re going to have to go through the vetting channels and ensure our gaming control board vets KeyStar in its entirety. Once they are licensed operators, then we’re going to be able to have ZenSports here in Nevada. Unfortunately, it’s probably going to take a year before we see ZenSports in Nevada. However, we’ll probably see our product in other states and provinces — heck, even other countries — far sooner than that. 

Gaming Today: You’ve adopted, well, a very contrarian approach, let’s call it — and we don’t want to put you at a disadvantage in Bookies Battle 2022 — but what’s the thought behind picking mostly underdogs in the contest?   

Kowalski: When I got into this business, boy did I love that chalk. I can’t do it anymore. In a league that has more parity than we’ve ever seen, there’s no reason ever to not put heavyweight opinion on getting points. Just take points! My first step is always give me plus. I’ll come back and say, “Do I really like the dog, or what’s gonna make me wanna lay points here?” Then I dig a little deeper. Don’t call me an auto picker with the dogs, but I’m guilty as charged. (Laughs) 

Also in the Bookmaker Spotlight: BetMGM’s Jason Scott | Bally Bet’s Jay Rood  | Westgate Young Gun Casey Degnon | Golden Nugget’s Tony Miller

About the Author
Kris Johnson

Kris Johnson

Senior Writer
Kris Johnson is a senior writer at Gaming Today with more than 15 years of experience as a sports journalist. Johnson's work has appeared in Sports Business Daily, Sports Business Journal, NASCAR Illustrated, and other publications. He also authored a sports betting novel titled The Endgame.

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