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‘Gambler in spirit’ Derek Stevens exhausted after $1M thrill ride

As Villanova pulled away from his beloved Michigan Wolverines in Monday’s NCAA Championship game, Derek Stevens tried to shake up the Wildcats’ mojo.

“I want all these stools pulled out,” he said, referring to the tall chairs at his famed Longbar at The D Las Vegas. “We’re going to stand for the rest of this game.”

But even the standing-room-only crowd could not thwart what had become inevitable. The Wildcats were dominant through that second half in a 79-62 championship victory.

Stevens, co-owner of Fremont Street hotels The D and Golden Gate, had made a pre-tournament bet of $25,000 on the Wolverines to win the title at 40-to-1. Had Michigan prevailed, he would have cashed a $1 million ticket at rival downtown resort Golden Nugget.

Stevens did still win money, as he hedged $330,000 on Villanova to win $100,000 at Four Queens’ William Hill-operated sports book. As charted by my colleague Todd Dewey, Stevens won about $23,000 through his NCAA Tournament betting foray (not including a single in-game bet on Villanova when the Wildcats trailed by five in the first half).

Up until Monday, when he walked from his hotel to the Four Queens carrying his cash in a big cardboard box, Stevens conducted all of his wagering at the Golden Nugget. His go-to at that hotel has been sports book director Tony Miller (who was also at The D on Monday night). But Miller said early Monday his book had declined any hedge wager from Stevens, staying with Villanova as a minus-7 favorite to win the game. It turned out to be the right call.

Such adventurous wagering is not new for Stevens, who is from Detroit and graduated from Michigan. Stevens usually loads up on schools from his home state at the start of the NCAA tournament. In 2015, he bet $20,000 on Michigan State at 50-to-1 to win the title, which also would have been a $1 million payout (the Spartans were knocked off by Duke in the Final Four).

Stevens also made that bet at Golden Nugget.Golden Nugget owner Tilman Fertitta was called upon at his office in Houston to authorize the wager because of its uncommonly high payout.

Wearing an maize-colored jacket splashed with yellow Michigan logos, Stevens was clearly wiped out after Monday’s game.

“If I wasn’t a gambler, I’d still feel terrible,” he said, then listed teams from his home state. “Whether it was Oakland University or Michigan or Michigan State, it is tough to lose a game this big.”

Stevens said that if he’d won the $1 million, “I would have no better piece of capital than to build something else in Las Vegas. There’s nothing better to do with my money. That’s how much I love this city.”

With his wife, Nicole, and several D staffers nearby, Stevens added, “I want to build characters, people who smile, who have a lot of fun and who are part of the whole process.”

As if to punctuate that thought, Stevens’ Pope Francis bobble-head figure, displayed in a glass box while “blessing” his Golden Nugget ticket, was being removed from the bar and taken to a safe. Stevens says he has no idea if it will ever be displayed at the hotel.

Asked if he had any regrets, the hotel magnate said, “I regret is I didn’t bet $3 million on (expletive) Villanova. But I’m a gambler. I’m a gamer in my business, but a gambler in spirit, and when you’re a gambler, sometimes you lose.”

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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