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Billy Walters gets the best of it on ’60 Minutes’

Billy Walters gets the best of it. Stop the presses.

When “60 Minutes,” the celebrated investigative television news magazine, let on that it had the country’s largest and most controversial sports bettor in its sights, some gambling wags I know had it in their minds that Walters had finally met his match.

Surely the CBS program’s investigative hounds had snooped out the true skinny about the Kentucky-born betting sensation, who manages to wager millions on professional football despite the fact few Las Vegas sports books will take a nickel of his action.

Yes, where the FBI and Metro had failed over the years with their various investigations into Walters, “60 Minutes” would succeed.

When I heard their theory, I shrugged. Didn’t they know that, with very few exceptions in his life, Billy Walters always gets the best of it?

The best odds on the NFL schedule. The best land deals from the city and county. Pick a game, and he manages to master it.

He’s bet millions on Super Bowls, made a fortune hustling golf, and has played pool games for more than your house used to be worth.

So it should have surprised no one that Walters also managed to have the best light shined upon him by the usually hard-nosed TV journalists. If he wanted to run for mayor, or promote his memoir, he couldn’t have produced a better advertisement for himself.

Walters was famous in betting circles before he made his first Las Vegas newspaper headline. In the 1980s, he was known as a golf hustler with no choke point, a man who could sink putts at the Las Vegas Country Club with hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line. Street lore has it he took notorious Vegas high roller Jamiel “Jimmy” Chagra for a bundle back in the day.

But that was nothing.

Walters was a founding member of the infamous and feared “Computer Group,” the breakthrough collective of gamblers, handicappers and investors who processed the day’s sports schedule at such a high level they consistently produced better odds than those on the wall of your local sports book. The Computer Group banked millions, and the bookies took a beating. The Computer Group spawned a generation of imitators, some of whom pounded the sports books to pieces.

But the FBI and Metro were watching, and indictments followed. A trial came later, and Computer Group lawyers mopped the floor with the feds. The FBI and U.S. attorney’s office were so embarrassed they put gambling cases on the back burner of their list of prosecutorial priorities.

Walters & Co. seemed to have the opposite effect on Nevada gaming regulation. The sports book industry was so routed it sought protection against Walters from the Gaming Control Board. That led to big rule changes, but Walters managed to adjust.

One of my favorite Walters stories is the time he scored an uncanny, and statistically improbable, winning record at roulette at the Golden Nugget. Casino bosses were sure he had to be cheating. So they had the wheel analyzed by engineers, who found nothing wrong with it. And the legend of Billy Walters grew.

Some of Walters’ biggest scores have come in the chambers of local government. His golf course land proposals at the city and county were tailored like Sinatra’s suits to fit his needs. The fact the public didn’t get the best of it rarely crossed the minds of mesmerized members of the City Council and County Commission.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Daffy souls who hoped to see Walters embarrassed or exposed on television surely were disappointed. They should have known better.

Billy Walters always gets the best of it, and his “60 Minutes” valentine is just another example.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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