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Weekly Q&A

Wynn oddsmaker Johnny Avello on reality TV, strange props and HBO’s ‘Luck’

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When he’s not posting odds on the Super Bowl, World Series or Stanley Cup. Wynn oddsmaker Johnny Avello is handicapping the Oscars, Dancing With the Stars and American Idol.
Photo: Steve Marcus

As the director of Race and Sports Operations at Wynn Las Vegas, Johnny Avello sets odds on everything, from sporting events to the Oscars to reality competitions (the latter two being for entertainment purposes only). Lately, on the entertainment side, this guy has been scary good, picking not only Miss America (Miss Wisconsin Laura Kaeppeler) but the the winner of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show (a pekingese named Malachy).

The Information Age has changed so much since you began doing this. How much information you get on the non-betting side comes from Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites? I get nothing from those, because I don’t actually look for information on those. Idol is a live show, and therefore I do Us Weekly, Fox, the More show, and I predict who is doing well, who might get kicked off, and I just kind of rely on what I’m watching. I talk to some of my staff or anyone who wants to give me input on what they’ve seen. That’s where that info comes from on the Idol side. And on Dancing With the Stars, I do a lot of networking with people on a daily basis and anybody else that wants to tell me what they think about the show. I’ll listen to anybody’s opinion.

It seems with the nature of your job, you might have trouble turning off the impulse to put odds on everything.

[Laughs] On the Mark & Brian radio show, I told the guys about how I was in a mall once and two people were in front of me, and I’m making odds on which guy’s going to that store or which one’s going to that one. My mind just thinks like that.

What is your favorite entertainment-based competition to handicap?

My favorite two are Idol and Dancing With the Stars. But the Oscars have so much more preparation. I start that in November. I kind of have a really good idea where I’m going when the nominations come out. I doesn’t take me long to know how I’m going to set them, because I’ve already either done them or had them in my mind for two months.

How much TV do you actually watch a week?

I Tivo most of the stuff, so I get through it rather quickly. All the shows I’m watching, I’m watching 45 minutes of a two-hour show. For reality TV, it’s probably three or four hours a week.

What do you watch when you’re not handicapping?

I’ve been watching Rescue Me with my wife. We watch a couple of episodes a night. I picked it up on episode 35 or 40—my wife is really watching it. But there’s a lot of stuff I watch. I’m not faithful to anything. Modern Family, I like Glee, I like the new show Smash … so I like a lot of entertainment shows, but I also like comedies, movies, so I’m open to anything. Documentaries, Channel 10, PBS, anytime they have something on that’s interesting to me.

I have to ask you about the recently canceled HBO show, Luck, which has a lot of gambling lingo that many found impenetrable. Did you watch it, and did you find anything to connect with?

I saw the first episode and I didn’t go back. It was okay. It probably could have grabbed me if I’d watched more, but I didn’t. If they were trying to grab some new interest into the game [of horse racing], I don’t think that was the way to do it.

I undrstood all the the lingo, but anyone watching it that’s not about horse racing, that’s where I believe they may have lost some viewers. People who were horse racing aficionados, sure they understood it, but maybe they didn’t like the concept of this show. They had a limited audience there, and I think that’s where they may have gone wrong.

Last year people could begin betting on the World Series of Poker. How did that turn out, and what things did you learn from that process to improve it this year?

We started about two months before the series took place, and we went back and forth, me my attorney and boss, with some ideas we’d like to do. And it was back and forth about five or six times. Eventually we got approval to do things, but it came two days before the tournament. [Laughs] We put up the bets, and we broke pretty good money. It wasn’t bad. Then some other casinos went out and did some more things, which they did get approval on. So I think it’s wide open now, there’s a lot of things you can do with it, and there was a lot of things I knew we could do with it. It’s got unlimited props.

What was the genesis of this job? Did you always know this was what you wanted to do? I did participate in a lot of horse racing when I was younger. I started going to the racetrack at a very young age, about 5 years old. Betting sports with a bookie [was] probably at age 16. So a lot of my friends were all involved in some sort of betting. I would say I had an interest for it early, but that’s not where I thought [my career] was going, that’s for sure. I went to school and learned to deal all the casino games in New York City. And then I came out here as a dealer and worked in the pit for the first six or seven years. Then I started worked in 1986 as a ticket writer at The Dunes. And from that point, I just kind of worked up the ladder to my current position. I was a director at Bally’s from 1994 to 2005, when I came here. So I can’t say for sure that was my aspiration, but it sure worked out that way.

What is the strangest prop bet you’ve ever seen made?

I’ve seen a lot of strange things on the betting and non-betting side. As far as betting, I put up something on Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. I actually had a betting proposition on the board, who would go further in that competition. [Laughs]

On the non-betting, there’s been a lot of strange stuff. I’ve been asked by Us Magazine to give props on the chances of someone getting married or divorced. For Rolling Stone, I’ve done props on what band will get back together, the chances of them getting back together, reuniting for a concert. A lot of this started with the first Survivor back in 2000. I was asked by TV Guide to make odds on who would win that competition. Ever since then I’ve done all the shows, Idol, Dancing With the Stars, Apprentice, Big Brother—I’ve probably done them all.

Ever feel like the job is wearing on you?

I’m in such a mode over the last 10 years where it’s not a burden. I know what my day’s going to consist of—a lot of sports book odds, NCAA, baseball, adjusting futures, people getting traded, Peyton Manning, Tebow, and then I have to spend a portion of the day on my reality stuff. This morning I’m going to adjust Idol odds and whatever else that may come up today. I always have a day full of real odds and entertainment odds. It never ends.

Other than TV, how do you spend your spare time?

I certainly use the amenities the town has to offer. I go to shows, restaurants … I have two daughters, one lives in town, one lives in New York, I’ve got a couple of grandkids, so certainly I’ve spent some time with them. Work consumes a lot of my time, because when I’m not here I’m still here. And what I mean by that is I’m on the phone with my staff, usually a customer making a bet, or the cage gives me a call in the middle of the night, someone exceeding their limit, so I’m really involved in my work. But when I step away from it, I try to do different things. I’m going hiking in Grand Canyon next week. Summers are my time to look for escape. Last summer I went to Italy, and the summer before that, it was Ireland. I love to travel.

Do you think we’ll ever be able to bet on the Oscars?

People ask me how come I’m not putting up the Oscars. Well, when you look at the game of poker, it’s played out so that when a person wins or loses, we all know about it at the same time. That’s not the case with these other shows. The winners of these shows where someone won two months ago, obviously you’re never going to be able to do book on those types of shows because someone knows the answer. And it’s still the case with the shows that have the three-hour delay, even with shows where people are voting in—Idol, Dancing—someone knows the result before we know it. So okay, that person is going to hold back, not tell anyone, be sworn to secrecy? Yeah, that all may be true, but someone still knows the answer. So I don’t know where we go with the reality odds. Is it possible to do some of it?

I think there’s a possibility to do the Oscars. The votes go and the nominations go out, voters send them back, they all have to be in by Tuesday, and the results are revealed to everyone on Sunday. But still, it’s about people voting and it’s not about being played out on the field.

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Ken Miller is Las Vegas Weekly's associate editor, having previously served as assistant features editor at the Las Vegas Sun ...

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