Like architects who built houses out of Legos, fashion designers who made clothes for their dolls or pastry chefs who cooked in easy bake ovens, Dave Cokin also began preparing for his future career as a kid.
The only difference is Cokin's chosen profession is a little less traditional.
Cokin, a longtime professional sports handicapper, placed his first bets at minor-league hockey games as a 6-year-old growing up in Providence, R.I. Since many of his family members enjoyed gambling, they would allow him to wager a few dollars on the Rhode Island Reds with a local bookie every time they attended a game.
"Of course I was a terrible bettor because I'd always bet on the Reds," Cokin said. "I wanted them to win, but they stunk. They were terrible. They would be in last place, but they would still always be the favorite because the bookies in the building knew everyone was going to bet the Reds. I probably lost five bucks every game."
Thankfully for Cokin, he became a bit more gambling-savvy as he got older. By the mid-1970s, he ran an attendance pool for his high school classmates. By the late 1970s, he administered an illegal bookmaking operation with dozens of clients. And by the early 1980s, he had relocated to Las Vegas and launched his new career as a sports handicapper.
Cokin is one of a select group of people knowledgeable, disciplined and level-headed enough to succeed at a profession many sports fans dream of entering but few have any hope of mastering.
A gambler must win 52.4 percent of even-money bets just to avoid losing money and closer to 55 percent year-round to earn a worthwhile living because bookmakers build a guaranteed profit into the action by requiring bettors to wager $11 to win $10. Winning just over half the time sounds deceptively easy to inexperienced gamblers, but studies suggest that 97 percent of sports bettors lose money wagering longterm — and the losses can mount quickly.
Ronald Andrews, a Virginia resident who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym in this story, made his first bet soon after graduating from college on a 1991 basketball game between Duke and St. John's, and the worst possible outcome happened to him: He won. A string of victories betting college basketball bolstered Andrews' feeling of invincibility, so he began wagering enough money that he soon needed his brother to bail him out of a $10,000 debt with his bookie after his luck inevitably turned.
A humbling experience like that would serve as a wake-up call for most people, but not Andrews. He was too hooked on the adrenaline rush of having money on a game and the ego boost of being able to tell his friends he predicted the outcome ahead of time. He'd bet as much as $500 per game with his bookie or via the Internet, but his annual profits and losses were negligible until he hit a pair of college football parlays worth a total of $55,000 in 2006.
Emboldened by his unexpected windfall, Andrews started wagering $1,000 per day and hiding the extent of his gambling from his wife. He quickly blew through his parlay winnings and his 401K fund, blindly betting on anything from baseball to women's college basketball to the WNBA as he desperately sought to chase his losses.
Rock bottom arrived in late 2007 when Andrews started using a company credit card to fund his gambling habit. He rationalized it to himself by telling the company accountant he was giving himself a cash advance that he intended to pay back, but a $15,000 gambling binge on a business trip to Las Vegas was what finally caught the attention of top executives.
"I got a call from my boss, 'Hey, can you meet me at 8 a.m.,'" Andrews said. "It sounded like everything was cool, but I knew I was screwed when I saw the Mercedes that belonged to my big-big boss in the parking lot. I was like, 'That guy's never here this early.'
Andrews' bosses indeed fired him that day, but they also paid for his month-long stay in a gambling treatment center and agreed not to press charges when his parents paid back the money he owed. In all, Andrews was in more than $200,000 debt when he quit gambling for good more than six years ago, an experience that taught him he did not have the right personality to succeed as a professional gambler.
"The only way you can be a professional sports gambler is if you have the discipline to stick to two or three games a day, and what happened with me is I can't do that," Andrews said. "If I just picked two or three, I would do pretty well, but at 10:30 at night, all of a sudden I'll want action on the Fresno State-Boise State game just to have action on it. That's how you get into trouble. You start betting blindly, and that's the nature of a compulsive gambler."
There's little chance of someone like Cokin falling into such a trap because that's simply not how he is wired.
Cokin spends roughly 60 hours per week either watching games, studying the lines or poring over stats and schedules in search of a spread that he finds favorable. In baseball for example, he'll use sabermetric stats to hunt for underdogs who have more value than either their win-loss record or their starting pitcher's ERA would suggest. In college football, he'll use rushing yards gained and allowed as a barometer and also analyze teams' schedules in hopes of figuring out whether they'll be on an emotional high or low entering that week's game.
A fastidious money manager, Cokin seldom wagers more than 2-3 percent of his bankroll on any single bet, typically grinding out a modest profit each year and occasionally enjoying a particularly fruitful year when he gets an insider tip or hits a run of good fortune. He supplements his cash flow by hosting a Las Vegas radio show and by selling his picks to other gamblers, but sports handicapping remains his primary source of income.
"I need to have a one unit profit per week, and so far this year I'm not doing it," Cokin said. "I'm not real thrilled about how 2014 is going so far. I had a really lousy run in the conference tournaments and I can't win a one-run game in baseball. When you're losing close games, it runs in cycles. Sometimes you're hot, sometimes you're not, but it usually evens out. What I have to do is swallow the frustration of losing games I should win and wait until I start winning games I probably should lose because that's going to happen too."
Cokin can speak with such confidence because he has been around gambling his entire adult life. He originally ran an illegal bookmaking operation in Providence in the late 1970s, only getting out of that business when a client got arrested for selling drugs and informed on everyone he knew in return for a shorter sentence.
The night before he was arrested, Cokin got a call from a friend in the Providence police department informing him they had been tapping his phone for months and they were coming for him at 6 a.m. in the morning. Cokin recalls taking the time to leave his front door unlocked in hopes the police wouldn't break it busting it open. Much to his dismay, police kicked it in anyway.
"I said, 'It's unlocked. All you had to do was open the door. It's going to cost me $600 to fix that,'" Cokin said. "Fortunately, they kind of screwed up the case and I had a really good lawyer, so I was able to get out of it without much damage. However, they did tell me in no uncertain terms that I could either continue to have my expensive door kicked in or I could find another line of work. Well, I didn't have another line of work, so I decided to come out to Las Vegas."
Cokin's original plan was to open a similar bookmaking operation in Las Vegas, but he knew he needed to open a reputable business on the side so he had a means of accounting for his revenue to the IRS. When he spotted an advertisement in a Street & Smith football magazine featuring a sports handicapper selling his picks to the public, he figured that would be the ideal guise.
As he was setting up both of his new ventures in 1981, Cokin won a picking contest run by Pro Football Weekly and syndicated in newspapers all over the country. The publicity he gained from that inspired a flood of calls to his pick-selling service and made him reconsider his plans to launch a second bookmaking service.
"At that point it was like, 'Well, people are going to pay me for my opinions or I can be out there risking my neck every day and doing something illegal,'" Cokin said. "It was a no brainer to go the legal route."
The sports gambling profession has evolved considerably since Cokin entered it four decades ago.
Whereas his phone bill once was hundreds of dollars per month because he was always calling 900 numbers for score updates or insiders that he knew for tips, Cokin can now get all that information and more via the Internet. He also thinks it's tougher to gain an edge now than ever before because the proliferation of information has made both oddsmakers and the general public more knowledgeable.
Every gambler can rattle off a dozen stories of soul-crushing losses they've sustained, but Cokin's favorite anecdotes are tales of his most lucrative victories.
There was the time a client who owed him a debt paid it by tipping him off that a horse running at Narragansett Park was listed as "Coninstical" but was actually a higher-grade horse from New York. Or the time a boxing manager ran into him in the press room and confided to him that his fighter was scared of his opponent and just wanted to go home. Or the tip he received weeks before the chicken-and-beer stories went public that the 2011 Boston Red Sox had irreparable clubhouse chemistry issues.
Victories like those have helped Cokin maintain a large bankroll and seldom have to panic during runs of bad fortune. He admits he feels pressure to win, but insists it's nowhere near the anxiety he felt setting lines as an illegal bookmaker during his youth.
"To me there's more pressure on that side of the window," Cokin said. "In that job, you sweat every day because you can run out of money and then you have to sweat being paid because sometimes people aren't prompt about it. I can take a day off anytime I want on the betting end. And if I hit a slump, unless it's just an enormous bad streak, it's not going to have a huge impact one way or the other. When you're at the other end, there are no days off and you better put up a good number or they'll crush you."
As he reflects on more than four decades in Las Vegas, Cokin has zero regrets about the line of work he chose. Not only did he know since those Rhode Island Reds games that he wanted to be part of the sports gambling industry, he also said he had the full support of his family to pursue a career as a handicapper as long as he could make a living at it.
A few years ago, a Las Vegas radio station approached Cokin about doing a show and told him the network needed him to send a resume. An amused Cokin wasn't sure how to meet that request.
"I'm sitting there thinking, 'I don't even know how to put together a resume,'" Cokin said. "What am I supposed to put on there? Some corporate guy in New York City is going to look at this and be like, 'We're giving a show to a bookie?'"
Only a professional gambler could go four decades in one industry without writing a resume. It's one of the perks of a high-risk, high-reward profession in which a lucky few find success and the majority return to their previous jobs with sob stories and empty wallets.
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