Humble New York Roots Blossomed Into Hall-Of-Fame Future For DraftKings’ Johnny Avello

Written By Mike Mazzeo on December 13, 2021 - Last Updated on December 14, 2021

There isn’t much information available online about the New York School of Gambling.

But you can purchase a lot of 10 $1 chips from the late 1970s Manhattan training program for aspiring casino employees on eBay.

Relics from a short-lived era — though some of its students did go on to make a significant impact within the industry.

“Oh my god,” Johnny Avello, director of race and sportsbook operations at DraftKings, told PlayNY during a recent interview. “I probably still have some of those chips.”

Avello, 69 — recently inducted into the Sports Betting Hall of Fame — got his start at the NYSG, learning how to deal dice with his sights set on a management role in the future.

Love of gambling fueled Johnny Avello to attend NYSG

Avello, a native of Poughkeepsie, grew up rooting for the same teams as his father: the Mets, Knicks, Giants and Islanders.

Granted, that isn’t necessarily the case anymore.

“When I was down at del Mar a few years back, somebody introduced me to (then) Padres’ manager Bud Black,” Avello said. “Bud asked me if I was a Padres’ fan. And I said, ‘Bud, I’m a fan of whoever the house needs tonight.’ Sometimes your allegiance to teams goes out the window when you have big decisions on games.”

Avello also enjoyed going to the track as a teenager and would work odd jobs and then throw down $25 bets on horse races with his local bookie. A love of gambling was born.

“That side of the business really intrigued me when I moved to Las Vegas,” Avello said of bookmaking. “So when I had an opportunity to jump in, I did.”

Avello attended Dutchess County Community College, but he joked during a post-induction panel at SBC Summit North America that he was much more of a partier than a studier.

TV advertisements for the New York School of Gambling on 34th St. in Midtown set the stage for his future. Avello met with school administrators and enrolled. During his stint at the school in 1977-78, the 25-year-old learned how to deal casino games and took management courses.

“I had intentions of going to Atlantic City,” Avello said. “But Atlantic City didn’t take anyone from that school. So I had to move out to Las Vegas. But I remember going down every day on the train to Grand Central, and then walking over to 34th St. to go to school.”

Avello narrowly avoided death on NYC streets

Avello vividly remembers one day when his life nearly ended too soon.

He was making the eight-block walk to school from the train station when he had a brush with death.

“I remember being on a corner, trying to cross the street without looking and a bus comes by probably doing a good 5 to 10 miles per hour,” Avello said. “And as I walked off the curb the bus brushed against my chest and continued on.

“And I always look back at that day and think I could’ve been killed for not paying attention. So that’s the thing that always comes to mind when I remember walking those eight blocks to go to school.”

A typical day learning the craft at NYSG

The New York School of Gambling — which is thought to have been open for around three or four years, according to Avello — was very much hands-on, a learning-by-doing institution.

There were morning sessions and afternoon sessions, featuring groups of six to eight students at a table learning how to deal roulette, blackjack and baccarat. Students would switch between serving as dealers and players for the simulations.

“They had areas where you could just practice what they call cutting chips, because what you learn to do as a deal is hold a whole stack of 20 in your hand,” Avello said. “And so any time — and I could still do it, I’m sure — I could just pick up 20. Not 19. Not 21. Exactly 20. And then I could cut any amount off of that. I could cut five, I could cut two. I could put down five and then just kind of roll into that and make four groups of five. So you really get good at your trade by just repetition.

“And guys would try to put you in a position on a game where you had so much action, that you thought if I can handle this … I really thought when I came to Las Vegas (in 1979) I was pretty hot shit as a dealer. But I learned that I was nothing compared to the guys out here that had been doing it a long time.”

Modest beginnings led Avello to Las Vegas…

Avello has told this story before, of course.

How he climbed into a 1969 Buick Skylark with the driver’s side door tied shut and drove out to Las Vegas from New York without a job — but a couple of referrals through his connections back east.

He started out at the Hotel Nevada, dealing dice for $12 a day plus tips. He even sold insurance for a short period before landing a job as a ticket writer at the Las Vegas Hilton.

“I found my passion,” Avello said.

… And then to DraftKings, which prepares for NY online sports betting

From there it was on to Bally’s (as bookmaker and then director) and then the Wynn (also as director). Avello has been with DraftKings since 2018. Since then, DraftKings has since put its sportsbook in del Lago Resort & Casino. And as we stand at the doorstep of legal New York online sports betting, which could launch by early 2022, DraftKings Sportsbook NY is set to enter the fold.

Avello has said he could eventually see a time when just one centralized bookmaker exists for everyone — a prediction he made as a part of his Hall of Fame SBC Summit North America panel. But even if that happens, it’ll probably take a decade.

“Don’t get me wrong, there are sharp bettors where the line means everything to them,” Avello said. “But a good portion of customers are just interested in getting a bet down. So if they’re getting a fair number — and it was a fair number for everyone — I don’t see why you’d have to have different lines for everyone else.

“I just threw that out there as a possibility — everyone works off one line and then it’s just about marketing and taking care of your customer base.”

Either way, Avello is thankful for a lucrative career that became with his 25-year-old self just hoping for an opportunity while commuting to the New York School of Gambling. And he still keeps in touch with some of his classmates, who he considers great friends.

“I can honestly tell you that in my 40 years in the gaming business, I have never looked at my watch to see what time it is to go home,” Avello said. “I feel fortunate to be in something that I really truly love.”

Photo by AP / Charles Krupa
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Mike Mazzeo

Mike Mazzeo is the Lead Writer for PlayNY, arriving after covering several of New York's professional sports teams in a variety of roles for the past decade. Previously, he served as a beat writer and columnist covering the Brooklyn Nets (ESPN) and New York Yankees (New York Daily News). Mike also covered both the MLB and NBA nationally for Yahoo Sports. In addition, he served as a general assignment reporter for ESPN NewYork.com. He has also had bylines in the New York Times, New York Post, Newsday, Forbes and The Ringer. With PlayNY, Mike brings extensive coverage and unique story angles to what is projected to be one of the biggest and most lucrative online sports betting markets in the country. It's been an arduous and confounding process to get here, but 20 million New Yorkers (many of them die-hards) are now legally able to bet on their favorite sports teams across the state via online and mobile platforms.

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