It all started for Chris Andrews in fifth grade at Atlantic Avenue School in Pittsburgh’s Forest Hills suburb, taking bets on parlay cards with two cousins who would go on to become professional bookmakers themselves.
In his teens and 20s, he was mentored by his uncle, Jack Franzi, a skilled sports bettor and sometimes bookmaker who would have to leave western Pennsylvania — where legal authorities unsuccessfully tried to prosecute him — for the safer, welcoming environment for such activities in Las Vegas.
And now Andrews, 66, who has become a renowned Nevada figure in his own right after 40-plus years there, has reached the apex of his industry with selection in the fourth class of the SBC Sports Betting Hall of Fame.
The sportsbook director since 2016 of the South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa in Las Vegas, he is to be inducted in a July ceremony at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey, along with Paul Burns, president and CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association; Sandy Drozd, vice president of USBookmaking; and Vinny Magliulo, vice president of Las Vegas Dissemination Company and sportsbook director of Gaughan Gaming.
Among members of this particular Hall of Fame, it’s notable that Andrews was preceded in 2019 by cousin Art Manteris, one of those Atlantic Avenue School parlay hustlers who went on to manage major Las Vegas sportsbooks, and in 2021 by Jimmy Vaccaro, a longtime friend from Pittsburgh and legendary Las Vegas oddsmaker whom Andrews terms his “consigliere” now as his consultant on staff at South Point. (That other parlay-pushing cousin from school days is Zach Franzi, who now manages two sportsbooks in Mesquite, Nevada.)
Vaccaro, Manteris, and Andrews all ended up in Nevada in the 1970s when the steel industry’s decline was eroding job opportunities in the Pittsburgh region, and they could be likened to the Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly of the sports betting industry, in terms of western Pennsylvania’s outsized influence and Hall of Fame honorees.
It was part of the local culture growing up
“In Pittsburgh, it was certainly part of our culture and an easy transition coming into the casinos in Las Vegas,” Andrews said of the gambling world in a phone interview with Penn Bets. “We just all adapted very easily to taking what we knew back home and applying it.”
Sports betting, before it became legal in Pennsylvania through 2017 legislation and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 PASPA decision, has always been a key part of underground gambling in a city where passion for the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins runs deep. Andrews noted there are other Midwestern and Northeastern cities where sports betting might be just as ingrained, so luck and connections also had a lot to do with how those with Steel City roots became so immersed in the Las Vegas industry.
In Andrews’ case, it was his revered “Uncle Jack,” who had beaten the FBI in a 1970 bookmaking case in Pittsburgh, who helped him land his first sportsbook job at the former Stardust Casino in 1979. Andrews had recently obtained a business administration degree from Robert Morris University, but he saw no future for himself in Pittsburgh. He also found the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind a desk somehow managing other people’s money pretty uninspiring.
He loved sports. He loved betting, whether doing it himself or taking it from others. He had a knack for math and numbers. It simply all added up, in terms of how he could make a living and be satisfied in Nevada unlike anywhere else in the U.S.
In his first of two books, Then One Day … 40 Years of Bookmaking in Nevada, Andrews — a terrific storyteller — writes about the zany characters and atmosphere at the old Stardust, the knowledge he developed under Vaccaro and Franzi when they were running the Barbary Coast, and then coming into his own from 1981-2003 heading the sportsbook at the Club Cal Neva casino in Reno. There, he leaned heavily on both Franzi and another legendary Nevada figure Andrews befriended, Michael “Roxy” Roxborough, for help setting widely respected lines before modern technology existed to assist.
From that time and all the days forward, including his present gig at South Point, where he shares large-scale mutual respect with casino owner Michael Gaughan, there have been few days in a sportsbook that he hasn’t enjoyed. His second book, Then One Year … History’s Craziest Year as Seen by a Las Vegas Bookmaker, chronicled a year in the life of the South Point sportsbook from 2020-21 that included the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I love that there’s a challenge every day,” Andrews explained to Penn Bets. “It’s like playing a giant chess game against the rest of the world — not just your customers, but other casinos and executives. … Pretty much never in the morning do I wake up and say, ‘Aw, man, I gotta go to work today.’ There’s plenty of times I come home at night and feel aggravated about something, but it’s a great challenge and fun just to show up every day.”
They’ll take him out ‘in a coffin,’ but not yet
Just a few years ago Andrews was threatened with the prospect of showing up nowhere anymore, let alone in a sportsbook. He was diagnosed in 2017 with a rare form of blood cancer, receiving a prognosis early on that he could have just two years to live. A bone marrow transplant in 2019 saved him, with a healthy recovery since.
“Everything’s great now. … If I didn’t have the transplant, I was looking at another two months and I’d be gone,” he said, crediting Gaughan with covering any expenses he needed three years ago during a three-month hospitalization in Los Angeles and subsequent time off from work.
Interestingly, in addition to work from behind a counter, Andrews has had stints between jobs where he worked as a professional bettor himself. He had been Franzi’s understudy as a young man, placing wagers for his uncle because Franzi’s prowess was so well known to the Vegas sportsbooks that they were leery to take as much of his action as he wanted.
His own respect for his late uncle — as well as his own betting experience — has made Andrews quite a friend of the wise guys in the industry. He figures sportsbooks learn a lot from such “sharps” about where their odds should be tweaked.
He’s happy to take their action while criticizing European-based online firms that have arrived in the U.S. after widespread legalization, only to severely limit the pros who understand betting best. At the same time, he shakes his head at companies widely reported to be losing money while offering all kinds of incentives to recreational bettors.
“A lot of people and companies are totally mismanaging this whole thing,” Andrews said of the post-PASPA industry expansion. “I’d like to read the financial reports from different companies losing money and giving away way too much because they think, ‘We’ll make it up in the long run.’ I’m not so sure about that.
“I think overall, [legalization of sports betting outside Nevada] is good, but is everything good? Not really. … A lot of these places, I don’t like their business style and management and how they treat customers, whether good or bad customers.”
As to whether he could have made a career out of being a full-time bettor himself, Andrews described it as extremely hard work during the periods he tried it — with longer hours required than in managing a sportsbook. Plus, he’s a family man, and it would not have been conducive to a stable life with his wife and children.
He still loves Pittsburgh, which he occasionally visits and whose sports teams he roots for, but he’s been plenty happy to have the life he’s had in Nevada. He’s worked with people he loves and admires, from his uncle to Vaccaro and Gaughan and others, become friends with industry greats like Roxborough and fellow inductee Magliulo, and enjoyed the daily chess game of oddsmaking.
And now he’s got the industry’s top honor on top of it.
“I’m greatly honored to be included,” he said, while noting it hardly means his days of work are done. “My wife and I joke that they’re going to have to take me out in a coffin, and that’s come a little closer to the truth than I’d like to admit, but I have no desire to retire. I enjoy coming to work every day.”
Photo courtesy of Chris Andrews