A Professional Gambler's Take on the Tim Donaghy Scandal

June, 11, 2008
6/11/08
2:10
PM ET

Haralabos Voulgaris leads a rare life.

He's one of very few people -- Voulgaris estimates there may be as few as four or five  -- who have achieved a high level of success betting full-time on the NBA.

And he does very well at it. "In the last eight years," he explains, "the 2004-2005 season was the only year where I didn't turn a nice profit, and I lost very small."

His approach is intensively evidence-based. He has his own massive database that would be the envy of any stat geek. For instance: Given two line-ups of players on the floor, his database does, he says, a good job of predicting which players will guard each other. The database also tracks the tendencies of individual referees, and factors all that and much more into forecasts. Voulgaris also watches close to 1,000 games a year.

He designed the database as a tool to outwit oddsmakers, and it works for that.Haralabos Voulgaris

But it's also a fine-tuned machine for researching the claims and career of Tim Donaghy. And having used this database, and his contacts in the sports betting world, Voulgaris says that his confidence in the integrity of the NBA has been shaken, to the point that, despite his big income, he's looking for ways to stop betting altogether.

"The leauge has made a big mistake," he says. "They should have come forward with the Donaghy stories. They should have explained about this game and that game that was fixed. Donaghy has said he may have subconsciously altered calls. It is not easy for me to believe that was all that happened."

Voulgaris finds Donaghy's latest claims about the 2002 playoffs fascinating. "It is a very different thing," he explains, "to say that there were league mandates to call certain things certain ways, and to share information about games, which he is accused of."

Much more information about these claims is here and here. And this is must-read.

"I'm not sure how credible Tim Donaghy is," says Voulgaris. "But his lawyer has good timing. We just had two games with huge free-throw disparities. And the 2002 Sacramento vs. Lakers Game 6 he talked about has long been talked about as one that might have been influenced by referees. In that game, the Lakers shot 27 free throws in the fourth quarter alone. There have only been 19 games since 2003-2004 had instances where one team shot more than 25 free throws in any quarter of a game. That's pretty strong, especially when you throw out any other similar games with a lot of intentional fouling. That's a lot of free throws. Of significance: Six of the 27 free throws the Lakers shot were intentional fouls to extend the game, and 10 were less-valuable Shaq attempts."

Voulgaris explains his understanding of the Donaghy affair to this point:

You have said that the Tim Donaghy scandal shook your confidence a little bit in the integrity of the NBA. How so?
The Donaghy scandal basically made me question whether or not I wanted to continue betting the sport.

For one, after the details emerged I have heard from several people who knew about the games while this was going on.

Towards the end of Donaghy's last season I guess the information was getting passed around quite a bit. I have always insulated myself from discussing the sport with other gamblers, I pretty much go about my work, keep it to myself, and bet the sport, so I was not privy to this information.

I also try to avoid all the "it's fixed" conspiracy talk because its counter-productive to actually handicapping the games. When the news broke, though, I spent an unhealthy amount of time poring over old games Donaghy reffed and seeing how I was affected.

It was rather disturbing and it kind of turned me off to betting.

It made me question whether or not I wanted to continue betting the sport, in fact I am at a point now where I'd actually prefer to work in the sport in some other way rather than betting on it, but I'd have to find a job that paid me as much (or nearly) to make it worth my time and I am not sure if those types of opportunities are available.

What do you think about how the NBA has handled the Tim Donaghy investigation?
From a league perspective they have done a great job sweeping this scandal under the rug, and downplaying it.

I keep on reading how Donaghy "provided information" as though this was the crux of the scandal.

The guy fixed games. He didn't "provide information" he bet on games he was working, and made calls to insure he would win those bets. It's pretty basic stuff but the NBA has somehow turned the focus of the whole investigation away from this and instead focused on the "inside information" angle.

I understand what the league is trying to do, I think in this instance the truth doesn't jibe with the league's best interest. In that respect the League and the Commissioner have done a great job of downplaying the scandal.

Be very interested in your reaction to the retroactive analysis here. Does that jive with your own?
As far as the retroactive analysis in the article you linked to goes, some of the line moves that are mentioned the line moves were due to injuries. After the scandal broke I have done a lot of research regarding what games were likely fixed and which ones weren't. I have also made some contacts with some bookmakers who have given me information on some of the games Donaghy bet -- some of the stuff in that article is just conjecture and speculation, but some of it is accurate.

I can say with a large degree of certainty that this game was one of the more blatant fixes. That Phoenix vs. New York game was a game that I was told was bet by the crew associated with [alleged Donaghy co-conspirator James "Baa Baa"] Batista, it was also a game where Phoenix shot 14 free throws in regulation and New York shot 36.

There aren't that many games in the last five or six years where a team had a 20 point free throw edge. In a sample of 6,373 games I show there being 167 games where the home team shot 20 more free throws than the visiting team, and 78 where the visiting team shot more. I hate trotting out numbers to prove my point because you can cherry-pick whatever statistics you want, but I think if someone with an objective eye goes and watches this game, focusing on Donaghy especially they'll come away thinking that it was pretty clear the Knicks got a huge advantage in the game.

Here are couple of other Tim Donaghy games that may make for some interesting viewing. Miami at New York on February 26, 2007. There was a 39 to eight free throw disparity in that one.

Tim Donaghy refereed a 2003 Knicks at Lakers game that had a 47 to six free throw disparity.

In a 2006 Orlando at Utah game refereed by Tim Donaghy, there were two technicals called against Orlando in the final two seconds of the game.

Most of the information I have about Donaghy is from the 2006-2007 season and its plain as day to me that Donaghy did
change the outcome of the games, I don't see how any rational human being could argue otherwise.

Can you give me more of a sense of what you have learned to gain that conviction? A lot of people have suspected as much, and have gone after that kind of evidence, but have not been able to publicly make that case convincingly. But I suspect they lack your contacts and perspective.
I have a lot of contacts in the sports betting marketplace, including offshore sportsbook owners, people who may have been enlisted to help bet the fixed games etc. The information I have gleaned from them tells me not only that Donaghy was betting on games he officiated, but on which games specifically.

But even if I wasn't privy to this information, Donaghy himself has admitted to betting on games he officiated. The NBA asserts that he was a rogue official with a gambling problem. I don't know many people with gambling problems who wouldn't want to skew the odds in their favor as much as possible. Are we to believe that we have a guy that took all these risks, started betting on games he worked, but also decided he was going to work these games fairly?

It's not even plausible in my opinion. It's not as if Donaghy was known for being someone who worked the games or even really lived his life with equanimity, yet somehow he was able to juggle the act of betting on games he officiated, and also officiate these games fairly?

The whole thing is really absurd, also consider that Donaghy took it a step further and associated himself with two guys that in the gambling industry are widely known as "movers."

A mover is someone that works for a gambling syndicate or individual and helps bet games for them. Why would you enlist the aid of a mover if you weren't looking to bet a lot, or at least connect yourself with someone who was willing to bet a lot of money on the games? If you were somehow able to deny the plausibility of all of the above, then we can fall back on my connections and contacts in the industry.

When I am told that a certain number of NBA games which Donaghy officiated (who, remember, has admitted to betting on games) received an inordinate amount of one-sided action, oh and by the way the side that was heavily bet on won at very high rate, I might begin to suspect that the ref had a hand in fixing some games.

A continuation of this conversation, including more background about Voulgaris, his research, the big win that got him started, things you can learn about coaching from analyzing a lot of games, and gambling generally, after the jump.

(Photo: Joe Giron/ IMPDI)

How does one become a professional gambler?
I was always really a huge NBA fan, I just love watching NBA basketball growing up as a kid in a small town in Canada, it wasn't like I was able to easily get a job working in the NBA, it seemed like betting on the sport was really the only way I could actually involve myself in the league.

The 2000 Western Conference Finals really got you started, right?
The 2000 season was pretty key for me, I had a fairly successful 1998-1999 season betting NBA and also had saved up quite a bit of money from my summer job as a skycap at the airport.

I was in the process of getting a degree in Philosophy at the University of Manitoba and I began to wonder what I was going to do with myself, the prospect of continuing my education and going on to grad school wasn't too exciting.

Around the same time Phil Jackson was hired to coach the Lakers and in my mind they immediately became the favorite to win the NBA championship. I placed several wagers on them in the first week of the season to win the NBA championship at what I thought was a fair price. I put aside enough money to cover my expenses for that school year and bet the rest of my savings on the Lakers to win the title.

When I tell the story now people look at me as if I was insane betting all my money on one event, but really I felt like not taking that chance would have been a bigger mistake. Basically my life wouldn't have changed that much had the Lakers not won the title.

I would have continued living in my older brother's basement and finished up my degree -- the money I bet wasn't life changing money, but if I won the bet with the 7 - 7.5 to 1 odds I felt like I could really change my life.

The only time I really regretted making the bet was when the Lakers were down, what was it, 12 points going into the fourth quarter of Game 7 vs. Portland in the western conference finals.

At that time it didn't seem like such a wise move. But luckily, the Lakers came back to win the game and went on to win in the Finals pretty handily and I never really looked back.

What kind of gambling do you normally do?
I mainly bet on the NBA, and within the NBA my main area of expertise is betting on individual game totals (how many points both teams combined will score in a game). I would say during the regular season 95% of my bets will be involving totals of some sort (sometimes full game, sometimes first half and second half totals).

During the playoffs I make a lot of series bets and quite often during the season I will also make what are called future bets.

This year I had a rather large bet against Phoenix winning the Western Conference, it was my largest bet of the year and I had to lay roughly 3-1 but it felt like stealing. At the time they were in first place in the conference and had just made the Shaq trade. I felt like the trade was a disaster and took a large position against them not only in that bet but as well as throughout the season. I also bet against the Suns in the first round vs. the Spurs not only for the series but also in each of the four games.

A few other playoff bets that I made were Utah to beat Houston, and Cleveland to beat Washington. I also had a really large bet on the Spurs to beat the Hornets but I am not sure in retrospect if that was necessarily the right side.

On the losing side, I bet Cleveland to beat Boston at the start of that series as well as in most of the individual games.

Your work is rooted in some of the most profound basketball analysis done anywhere. Can you give me an idea of the kind of research you have done?
As far as research, I already mentioned that much of what I do is based in watching a lot of games, I record pretty much every game and try to watch most minutes of each game. In addition to that I also do a lot of data analysis, I have about seven years' worth of play-by-play data which is very robust and includes shot location.

The data doesn't include any defensive notes but I have designed a pretty good model that predicts who would most likely guard who on each possession. I go in and test this by looking at the game tape and for the most part I can accurately determine with enough certainty which player was likely assigned to guard which player at the start of the play.

Things like teams playing zone or man switches aren't accounted for but for the most part, when you analyze the data as a whole layers of data present itself.

I also look at things like referee data, which refs call fouls and at what rate. In lieu of the Donaghy scandal, the league now publishes its ref information the day of the game which is great for me because I can now incorporate this data in my prediction models.

In years past, unless you had any type of inside information regarding the ref schedule, you didn't know what ref was doing what game until they showed up on the court prior to game time. I am kind of a one-man show so I never had any access to this information, so I never really factored it into my predictions.

With that research, are you able to consistently beat oddsmakers?
In the last
eight years, the 2004-2005 season was the only year where I didn't turn a nice profit. (I lost very small.)

I think this was due to me playing more poker and not having as much time to watch the games. Luckily I was able to partially offset this with a decent-sized score in a poker tournament in LA.

We should probably also talk more about your poker career. How is that going?
My poker career if you can call it that, is going good. I don't play that much poker during the NBA season. I play a few tournaments here and there, mostly in Las Vegas or California, and pretty much only play the cash games in Las Vegas during the times there are tournaments going on.

I also play in some games in LA but again that is mostly when the NBA season is over or winding down. I played about 10-12 tournaments in 2007 and had a decent year the highlight of which was a third place finish at the WPT Borgata tournament in September. I consider myself more of a cash-game player than a tournament player.

Do you have an actual team that you support as a fan? Does that mess up your ability to bet on that team?
No favorite team, I really love the sport as a whole -- you couldn't go back and watch around 900 games a season without loving the sport.

This might sound like a really stupid question, but quite honestly, I do not know the answer, and I am curious: Is what you do legal? I mean, I know there is a lot of sports gambling these days, but there seem to be a lot of restrictions, too.
Betting on sports (as long as you are betting and not bookmaking) is legal in most states and jurisdictions.

With the amount of basketball you watch, and the systematic way you analyze it, you must have all kinds of insight into the game that most of us don't have. I'm not looking for gambling tips here, but in general, can you share some knowledge? Like, is this or that coach exceptionally good or bad? Who's your MVP? Are there tactics you think are great or terrible, like Hack-a-Shaq?
As far as insights go, I think teams that are losing tend to wait too long to foul. I also think that if the rules for "hack a Shaq or hack a Ben" aren't changed, teams should really consider fouling players who hit less than 45% of their free throws even when winning a game between the four-minute mark and the two-minute mark of the fourth quarter.

One tactic that I feel is pretty silly is the "foul to give." A lot of teams use this really liberally and will even foul when there is a difference in the game clock to shot clock. For example say there is a four-second differential between the shot and game clock and a team will still take "foul to give." This is foolish because it eliminates the last four seconds whereby the defending team could then get the ball and have a chance to score.

Another clock management example I hate is when teams don't try to get a shot off in the last 30-39 seconds of a quarter, there are a lot of teams who seem to waste these seconds.

Both of these are pretty basic game situations, but you'd be surprised how many teams eliminate extra offensive possessions as if it's their job.

The flip side of that are the teams/players who do a great job of garnering extra possessions, my numbers tell me the Hornets and the Spurs do this best.

The best coach in the league (and its not even close) is Gregg Popovich. He is without peer in terms of how well he manages a game, as well as prepares his team. It's really not even close, he is just that much better than every other coach in the league. If you are ever unsure of what the correct strategy is in a certain situation, look to the Spurs. If they are doing it, it's probably the right strategy.

There are a lot of coaches who do a poor job with what I call the mathematics of the game, but to be fair, maybe they are better at other aspects of their job like motivation or player development.

However, I have a hard time believing that Doc Rivers could ever make up for his in-game strategy with his ability to motivate or develop players. I would like to have seen how the Celtics would have fared this year if they didn't hire Tom Thibodeau to install a great defensive system. If Popovich is the guy you lean to if you are unsure of what to do, Rivers is certainly the guy you look to if you want to know what NOT to do.

As far as MVP goes, I am not even sure what criteria the NBA uses to define its MVP award. If you go by the last few years, especially the years Nash won and use the "guy who means the most to his team" definition. I'd have to go with LeBron, Garnett, or even Chris Paul over Kobe.

I'd like to see how far the Cavs would go if Kobe and LeBron switched teams.

Worst bet you ever made.
I have made so many bad bets I don't think I could single out one.

You mention that you would like to get out gambling, and work in some other capacity in the NBA. Talk to me about how that might work. What would be your role?
As far as working for an NBA team and in what capacity? That becomes the tough part. Obviously I'd have to start somewhere at or near the bottom. If you look at the jobs I covet -- GM or Assistant GM for instance. Mostly all of these positions are filled with ex-players and/or sons of former/current GMs.

I am not sure if growing up around the NBA or playing in the NBA necessarily qualifies you to run a franchise.

There are a bunch of ex-player GMs who do a great job, and some who have been, or continue to be horrible at their job. The bottom line is I don't think that the successful GM's who were former players arrived at their success due to having formerly played in the league.

Guys like Sam Presti and Daryl Morey are obviously the exceptions to the son or former player rule. Both have acquired their positions by doing the grunt work and spending a great deal of time analyzing the game. They both seem to embrace the mathematics/ analytical aspect of the position.

I think the analysis, as well as the knowledge base I have acquired over the years would be invaluable to an NBA team. Beating the NBA is extremely difficult. I can count on one hand the number of people in the world that have achieved the level of success in this field that I have (in terms of win percentage and amount of money earned). I would think that any of these people would be more than qualified to run an NBA franchise than some random former player who decided he wanted to get into management.

If you are able to correctly ascertain which collection of players (a team) is better than another team and by precisely what margin, then you are certainly qualified to make decisions as to what players are worth.

Some of my most successful bets were the result of trades or acquisitions. More often than not I am able to accurately forecast how these changes would impact the teams involved.

Take the Shaquille O'Neal for Shawn Marion trade from this season as one example. I immediately knew this trade would not work out and backed it up with a very large bet (several really) that involved Phoenix not advancing in the playoffs and not winning the Western Conference.

A sports bettor and a GM are both faced with the task of making tough decisions. We arrive at our conclusions (or at least should) in a very similar manner, both the bettor and GM are taking significant risk in that if our suppositions fail be correct, we suffer. Any distinctions between what I do in my NBA betting, and what a GM does in ass
essing the merits of a certain trade or move are purely superficial.

At least that's how I feel. Whether or not anyone agrees with me is another matter altogether.

Look, I have been pretty fortunate to have done quite well for myself financially with regards to sports betting, and to a lesser extent poker. But at this point I would probably trade it for a low-paying or no-paying job with an NBA team -- provided that I felt I'd be given the chance to prove my worth, and in a few years have the opportunity to eventually graduate to a higher position.

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