A fascinating profile in ESPN Magazine of Bob Voulgaris: Meet the world's top NBA gambler. Together with a math, statistics, and programming prodigy Voulgaris simply calls the Whiz (he won't reveal the Whiz's real identity for fear of having him poached), Voulgaris built an NBA simulator named Ewing, after Bill Simmons' Ewing Theory.
If Ewing has a secret sauce, it’s just this sort of thing: Finding scraps of information, sliced and diced ever more finely, that reveal something about how a system -- in this case, a game of pro basketball -- will operate in the future. The key is to find those scraps that are more predictive than others. Case in point: One of Ewing’s most important functions is to assign values to players. Each player has two values -- on offense and as a defender -- and those values are constantly changing. Ewing will also automatically adjust the value depending on who’s guarding whom. Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins “is more valuable guarding Dwight Howard than he is guarding Shane Battier,” Voulgaris says. Why? “Because Howard is a unique player, and you need a big to defend him.” Likewise, according to Voulgaris, Celtics seven-footer Jason Collins is “useless every game, except when he’s guarding Howard, which he does really, really well.” Player values also change across a season and a career. So Voulgaris and the Whiz created, for Ewing, an aging component. Further number-crunching revealed that different types of players, based on position and size, will reach their zeniths at different ages and on trajectories that are possible to predict. Ewing now grasps the curve of the lifespan of the point guard, the shooting guard, the forwards, the center -- and predicts the downslope and expiration date of every NBA career.
When Ewing went live with actual betting for the first time toward the end of the 2008 season, Voulgaris was not yet sold on its powers. For one thing, his subjective-gambler side wasn’t ready to surrender control to a machine. For another, the model was performing unremarkably with their money on the line -- right above the break-even line. But Voulgaris had something in mind, “a long project, like a six-month-long project, to model a certain part of the game of basketball.” He and the Whiz spent the offseason pursuing this mysterious project, the precise nature of which Voulgaris will not discuss. “I don’t even want to allude to what it might be,” he says when I press him, “because I don’t think anyone else is doing anything like it.”
By 2009, once they’d added this mysterious additional model to Ewing’s inner workings -- version 2.0 -- they started making bets based on the scores it produced after the All-Star break. “We just, like, crushed the second half of the season,” Voulgaris says. Since then, as each subsequent season has passed, Voulgaris’ confidence in Ewing has increased. So too has the frequency of his wagering. In a season, he now regularly puts down well over 1,000 individual bets. “I mean, I don’t want to sit here and brag,” he says. “But this is literally, like, the greatest thing ever when it comes to sports betting.”
More money is gambled on the NFL than any of the major US sports, but given how strong a role luck plays in NFL outcomes, it's surprising more people don't gamble on the NBA instead since skill plays a greater role in the NBA than in MLB, the NBA, or the NHL.