Estimates indicate that upwards of $500 billion is illegally wagered each year on sports, so when the Supreme Court ruled on May 14, 2018, that sports gambling was now legal in all 50 states, millions of bettors—as well as the casinos who prey upon them—let out a collective cheer. Action is the story of that watershed moment for the industry, told via the experiences of some of gambling’s most high-profile figures during the 2018-2019 NFL season. What it reveals isn’t exactly pretty.
Directed by Luke Korem, Action—a four-part documentary series premiering March 24 on Showtime—is an engaging peek into a subculture that barely deserves that “sub” prefix. Since the Supreme Court’s decision, sports gambling has already become a $100 billion goliath. And that’s not counting the untold amounts of money trading hands via underground bookies, who are here represented by a voice-obscured gentleman who says legalization hasn’t hurt his business at all—because, unlike casinos, he lets customers place bets on credit—and acknowledges using violence as an effective means of collecting on debts. It’s a milieu that many will instantly recognize, which doesn’t make it come across as any less shady and sad.
That’s not to label all sports gamblers as such; many upstanding people like to visit Las Vegas or Atlantic City to enjoy the fleeting rush that comes from risking hard-earned cash on an athletic contest. Action captures that excitement in snapshots of sportsbook patrons screaming in anger, and cheering in celebration, over games being broadcast on enormous screens alongside betting-line boards. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, to paraphrase ABC’s Wide World of Sports, are on full display here, visible throughout the rows upon rows of gamblers waiting with baited breath for outcomes that will either line their pockets or empty their wallets.
As many confess in Action, casinos are founded on doing the latter to customers. Still, Korem’s series, for the most part, focuses on a handful of experts who treat sports betting not as a casual pastime but, instead, as a serious profession. Bill “Krack” Krackomberger, a nationally known “professional sports gambler,” spends his days and nights poring over laptop spreadsheets and making his way from one casino to another, placing bets and cashing tickets with wads of bills at the ready. Former Bellagio bottle service waitress Kelly Stewart, on the other hand, develops her career on “Wager Talk” as a professional handicapper, making informed predictions on the basis of statistics and mathematical analysis.
They, as well as David Halpern—seen in the Westgate Las Vegas’s Elvis Suite, critiquing champagne—all claim to be exceptions to the rule that says most gamblers lose more than they win. Their continued success seems to bear that out. So too does the lucrative business of David Oancea, aka “Vegas Dave,” who went on such a historic betting run from 2015-2016—placing winning wagers on the Kansas City Royals, Denver Broncos, and UFC fighters Holly Holm and Miesha Tate that netted him $5 million in total—that he’s now banned from the city that gave him his nickname. Vegas Dave boasts that he wins 75 percent of the time, and while his compatriots say that can’t be done, he certainly appears to be doing something right, earning close to $180,000 in sales in a single morning caught on camera, and then correctly picking two college football games that he’d touted to clients as one of his can’t-miss “whale bets.”
Though it’s not addressed in the first two Action episodes provided to press, there’s a reason many view Vegas Dave suspiciously: in January 2019, he pleaded guilty (in exchange for probation) to using phony Social Security numbers at Vegas casinos to the tune of more than $1.2 million in transactions. That calls into question the legitimacy of the entire industry, even in its current legal form. Director Korem does touch upon the obvious threat of corruption and scandal, albeit in a manner that feels too cursory considering the criminality that’s long surrounded gambling. That’s similarly true of the series’ treatment of gambling’s negative effects on communities and people, which gets short shrift in favor of colorful portraits of those inhabiting this environment.
Nonetheless, even a few minutes’ worth of coverage regarding what gambling has done for Atlantic City (read: very little), and how it leads to addictions that ruin lives, is enough to make one sympathetic to the question posed by Les Bernal, national director of Stop Predatory Gambling: “How can anybody say this is a great thing for the American people?”
Krackomberger, Stewart and Halpern don’t opine much on the societal impact of legalized gambling, except to forward the idea—alongside famed bookmaker Jimmy Vaccaro, broadcasting icon Brent Musburger and ESPN’s Cousin Sal—that legalization was inevitable, given its rampant popularity. That may be so, and certainly Korem’s documentary depicts a business booming in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Yet its individual portraits imply that something’s rotten beneath the industry’s glitzy façade. Oancea, for example, is a lonely man who markets himself by flaunting opulent trinkets and is constantly at the nearby home of his parents, who have bailed him out of financial trouble more times than they can count. As it turns out, Oancea was a longtime addict who only recently struck it rich after quitting via Gamblers Anonymous—a path also followed by Halpern, who says it took him long, difficult decades to discover a method to keep him perennially in the black.
And then there’s amateur Todd Wishnev, a once-svelte Los Angeles resident who’s now a 300-pound fixture at Vegas casinos, where he chats up other regulars and curses at the teams that are costing him cash. More than the show’s handy primers on betting procedures and terminology, it’s Wishnev who makes the strongest lasting impression, because in him—living out of a suitcase in a sparsely furnished apartment, his laptop (atop an Amazon box) the center of his world—one can see the pitiful consequences of gambling addiction. As with many of Action’s other subjects, Wishnev argues that his obsession is no different than life itself, which is full of risky bets, and thus should be taken “day to day.” His solitary, compulsive existence, however, suggests that he (and other gambling enthusiasts) may be losing in the areas that count most.