CC: Let's start at the beginning. Tell me about your youth.
Nolan: As a child, I moved around a bit, my father was an air traffic controller, and we lived in Chicago when I was very young, Dallas, Albuquerque, but most of the time I grew up in the Dallas area. I went to college at the University of Texas-Arlington and graduated in 1984.
CC: How did you get involved in gambling?
Nolan: I enjoyed backroom poker games during my time in college, usually for low stakes, but there was something specifically about poker that I enjoyed. I always liked gambling, I always thought gambling was fun, exciting, got your adrenaline pumping. After going through various stages of gambling when I was young, I read all of the blackjack counting books, tried point counting systems, and I realized that the way to maximize your time and energy when you're gambling is to do something you can make money at. That's poker, that's sports betting to a certain extent, maybe blackjack counting. There are really only a few things you can do. I gravitated to sports gaming and poker, and personally now I spend much more time on sports gambling than on poker. I spend eight-twelve hours a day when I'm not doing poker on sports, handicapping sports, looking for the best lines, etc. I feel it's much like poker in the sense that the harder you work, the more successful hopefully you are. That doesn't mean that you'll be successful; there are no guarantees, but I do find that someone who is sort of a Runyanesque character, where you really don't know where your next meal is coming from as a gambler, it's frightening but ultimately more rewarding when you have a couple challenges. I've been fortunate to work on all sides of this industry, as a writer and journalist, industry executive for the World Series and Binion's Horseshoe, and as a player and gambler, so I think I have a unique perspective seeing everything.
CC: Let's talk more about sports betting. How did you get involved in that?
Nolan: Frankly, it took years and years of losing. I think anyone who starts out betting sports is not good at it overnight. You've got to pay your dues, you have to make your mistakes much like poker. Remarkably, there are 19 and 20-year olds who are very successful poker players but I'm guessing they made their mistakes when they were sixteen and seventeen. For me in sports betting, I did all the stupid things that sports bettors do: betting mostly on the favorites, overreacting to what I saw the previous week. There are certain things in sports handicapping that are common mistakes, and over time it's similar to playing the stock market. You look at something and say to yourself, "Hey, I've seen this before." There's nothing like having that reservoir of experience where you've seen a situation before. What happened last time the Steelers and Browns were playing, it was snowing, and it was 22 degrees. I've seen games like that before: what does it mean? Is the line overreacting here? Is the total maybe too low? Of course it's cold and snowing, and the game should be low-scoring. But that doesn't mean you bet the under. Maybe the line has compensated too much, and you should be the over. It's the same thing with poker: if everyone at the table is playing tight, I play more loose. If everyone is playing very loose, you should probably play tighter. I think contrarian strategies tend to work in stock investing, sports betting, and poker.
CC: Similar to the stock market and poker, sports betting is a game of incomplete information, but probably moreso than poker information is king.
Nolan: I like how you put that, Craig. Sports betting is clearly incomplete information; however, the things you see on ESPN are kind of like Level I thinking. Everyone watches the scores and sees the highlights, everyone knows that the San Diego Chargers are a better team than the Houston Texans, that's obvious. Level II thinking is how much better are they, and Level III thinking is examining the line, is it correct in its assessment of the differences between the two teams. Again, it's like chess or poker, you have to be ahead of others' thinking. You can look very foolish when you're way in left field and everyone is on the other side, when you're the only one betting the Texans, then they lose 41-0, you look like the biggest fool on Earth. It's the same thing in poker, when you have a good read and you push all your chips in when you think the guy's probably going to fold, and he thinks and thinks and you're this close to winning the pot, and then he finally decides to call for whatever reason and you have to show your horrible hand. You can't say, "Well, I messed up," You have to say, "I was this close to taking that pot with the right read." You can't be results-oriented, you have to see if your assessment of the situation was correct. If the guy was thinking and thinking and he finally calls, you either have a tell or you were probably making the right play but got a little unlucky.
CC: With the advent of the internet as well as the huge growth of resources in sports betting, has this made what you do in sports betting much easier or has it lifted the challenge for everyone.
Nolan: That's a great question. I think with prevalence of great and instantaneous information out there, the line now changes almost immediately with some new information. That's what makes it more challenging. If you had the allocation of time, and you can devote your resources and energy to it, it's a great thing, the increase in information. But if you work a job and you're trying to handicap on the weekend with a newspaper in front of you, you haven't got a shot, because everybody has been thinking about NFL football on Wednesday and Thursday morning while you were selling insurance. You can't beat those guys. I don't mean that a recreational player can't win, there are obviously touts where guys are selling information, computer programs to assist the casual player. I find that taking all the information I can get then weeding through it, it's kind of like mining for gold. You have to throw a lot of dirt aside, then you'll find some Fool's gold, but you'll also pan some real stuff. Again like poker, it's an ongoing education. You never cross the goal line, never spike the ball, and claim victory. After a win, there is always another game to play.
CC: I went to London over Thanksgiving, and I'm not sure if you've ever been internationally to a soccer game, but one of the most blunt, distinct differences between American sports and an English Premiership soccer stadium is that in England, there's betting right there in the stadium. People are there betting on the score, different prop bets like who will score first, etc. Is that more an understanding of gambling and its intimacy with sports, a cultural difference, or do you think it's just naiveté on the part of the American sports infrastructure?
Nolan. I think you make several very good points, and you ask a very good question. There is no question that mainstream betting significantly helps the popularity of professional sports and college sports for that matter, without question. An organization like the NFL can deny it, but we all know they're linked, you can't deny it. You bring up the English model, and it seems like there is a betting parlor on every corner sometimes. I've asked some of my English friends about this, is it just the cultural difference how gambling is perceived. I guess the answer is simply yes. The popularity of gambling associated with sports in England goes back several hundred years. As long as there have been soccer games or horse racing, there has been betting. Unfortunately in the United States, much of our roots are Puritanical. There is a lot of religious influence in politics, especially years ago. Obviously, I'd like to see a more open society and a more educated, enlightened American attitude toward sports gambling. In fact, I firmly believe that if it was completely legal here in every state and was regulated, then you can really track what's going on. Keep in mind, that every time there is a sports scandal regarding fixing games, it is through a Nevada Sports Book or through the FBI field office in Las Vegas. I would expect that there are many things that have gone on that we don't know about.
CC: Justin Wolfers, a Wharton Economist, published a study of NCAA basketball games over the last sixteen years where he claims that point shaving seems to be occurring in large spread games in about 5% of games.