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Trust the numbers

The Guardian this week brought us the story of one of the world’s most successful gamblers, Haralabos “Bob” Voulgaris.

Since staking $80,000 on the LA Lakers to win the NBA championship in 1999, and winning, Voulgaris has been on a mission to make his passion for sports analytics pay out big time.

Following his first big win, he soon went on to rake in millions from bookies, often having to resort to using ‘beards’ – other people to place bets on his behalf – including some of an incredibly high profile, such as undefeated boxing world champion, Floyd Mayweather.

Having been brought up by a father with a habit for losing bets, Voulgaris became determined to use data and analytics to develop an edge for himself against the bookies.

Fast forward several years, and he’s now turning his talents towards the world of sports itself.

Rather than simply placing bets on his favourite team to win, Voulgaris has truly put his money where his mouth is by buying up third-tier Spanish football team, Castellón FC.

His initial plan had been to buy a basketball team, he said, but “they were trading for $200m, $300m and I was like: ‘I can get there.’ Every time I got close, the goalposts moved: $300m, $700m, $1bn. I felt like Sisyphus with the rock.”

Instead, he ended up investing in Castellón for a little over $4m in 2022, suggesting that “buying a third-tier team makes sense because we feel we have an edge, there are inefficiencies we identify, and the pyramid structure is super-rewarding: good work gets you promotion, bad gets you relegated.”

Voulgaris has since gone all-in on helping the team make its way up through the ranks of Spanish football, using his lifetime of experience in sports analytics to inform the decisions meant to get them there.

By using “young players, proper coaches, staff, the right facilities,” Voulgaris hopes to provide the team with what it needs to excel, without going overboard on spending.

“We’ll spend but I won’t throw $350,000 at some 35-year-old,” he insists.

So far, it seems his strategy is paying off, with the team holding its own against rivals one and even two tiers above it in Spain.

“I think we’re doing pretty special stuff here. It’s our model so it’s biased, but we’re 53% to win the league,” Voulgaris says.

And if he’s right, his players will be in for a decent bonus at the end of the season. 

Readers are encouraged to check out this article in full, to revel in the glory of Voulgaris’ own rags to riches story – one he’s now trying to replicate for the players and fans of Castellón FC.

“VIP” treatment

The Wall Street Journal this week brought us the story of a psychiatrist in the US whose life was torn apart by an online gambling addiction she says was fuelled by bonus credits, VIP treatment and data tracking by bookmakers.

Having racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt already, Kavita Fischer “hit a hot streak last summer” that saw her turn $750 into half a million in the space of just six days.

The winnings were enough to pay off her debts, and put the gambling addiction that had taken over her life well and truly behind her.

After making a request to withdraw the funds from her PointsBet account, however, Fischer promptly changed her mind, and after putting it back into play, lost nearly all of it within a day.

“As a psychiatrist familiar with human impulses and addiction, Fischer knew better than most what she needed to do,” according to the WSJ, but she was also up against the sophisticated abilities of gambling firms to leverage data analytics and human behaviour to keep customers betting.

Operators “tracked the ups and downs of Fischer’s betting behavior and gave bonus credits to keep her playing,” the article says, while “VIP customer representatives offered encouragement and gifts.”

The story is one that has already played out in mature European markets like the UK, and following media outry, social and political backlash, has largely been stamped out: the days of major gambling firms offering luxury days out and bonus incentives worth thousands to their “VIP” customers, are apparently all but over.

But in the rapidly emerging online betting sector across the Atlantic, it seems the VIP system is just beginning to rear its head.

PointsBet is not the only operator mentioned in the article, as DraftKings and other operators also apparently plied Fischer with bonuses totalling tens of thousands of dollars.

Again, readers are encouraged to explore this story in full to see the full details of the programmes that kept Fischer gambling, even when it was causing her terrible harm.

If US operators fail to take note of how VIP programmes have played out in other jurisdictions, perhaps this is a story we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the coming years.

Casino prospects say goodbye in Dubai

Al Monitor this week reported on the latest from the United Arab Emirates’ possible future gambling sector.

It wasn’t good news for the industry, however, as MGM Resorts president and CEO Bill Hornbuckle said this week that the firm’s $2.5bn development in Dubai will not be home to a casino.

The integrated resort specialist is in the process of building the Island, a major development based in the Dubai coastal area of Jumeirah.

When finished, the property will boast hotel rooms, apartments and entertainment options, but crucially, will not offer any gambling.

Hornbuckle continues to hold out hope for the possibility of a gambling sector in the UAE, but believes it will arrive first to Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island, where MGM has “spent some time on the ground,” trying to understand exactly what opportunities may be coming down the line.

“If and when both Abu Dhabi itself as the general licence granter for all or any of the Emirates goes, and then ultimately, one by one, the Emirates say they would like it, we hope to be positioned either for Dubai or Abu Dhabi, but time will tell,” Hornbuckle added.

While the development of MGM’s new resort will no doubt improve Dubai’s entertainment and accommodation offerings, it seems casino gambling is still no closer to becoming a reality.

As and when an official licensing regime is introduced, however, the race will be on – and with its latest project now underway, MGM may have put itself in pole position.

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