"Close your eyes. Picture what a bookie or the typical sports bettor looks like. What do you think of? It's a 55-year-old Italian man smoking a stogie, right?" laughs Kelly Stewart, a.k.a. KellyinVegas. "That's clearly not me."
She's right, of course. Just look her. You wouldn't mistake Stewart for the prototypical sports handicapper. In fact, it's most likely you wouldn't consider a woman in that role, period. Sports gambling is a frat house where women are viewed either as arm candy or an impediment to a good time. However, Stewart is starting to turn heads and it's not based on her looks, but on her wagering prowess.
"The first year and a half I was in Las Vegas was awful," she says, enduring bad jobs with lousy pay and, like most novice gamblers, losing at the tables. But one of her friends was a bookie, and while watching games with him—she's a long time sports nut, loving both the Kansas State Wildcats and the Denver Broncos—she began to learn the trade. "He'd have me place bets for him, and being curious, I'd ask, 'Why? Why do you like this game, this team?' And he'd explain it to me."
As soon as she began to make more money, her appetite for sports gambling grew. "I met a couple of key guys that showed me how to break down games. I was always a Big 12 girl. I never cared about other teams, even come Bowl season. But I started by learning about those teams, seeing if there was a play available and it branched out from there. After a while, it went beyond the Wildcats and the Broncos, taking it to a bigger scale and learning more about all the teams." That's where Stewart's bread and butter continues to be: betting on college and pro football, then dabbling in NCAA basketball once the Super Bowl has passed.
"Later," she adds, "the guys from Don Best [a sports handicapping service] took me under their wing and I was able to really develop a better handicapping style of my own."
One of her 16,000-plus Twitter followers made a comparison between Stewart and Mo'ne Davis, the young girl who pitched lights-out baseball in the Little League World Series. She's an army of one: a sole woman in a sea of men, and therefore seen as a curiosity not meant to be taken seriously. "No one cares that I'm a girl," Stewart thought, but in the anonymous world of Twitter, "I get eaten alive by men." But she's quick to add, "Men are always threatened by a powerful woman."
Away from that virtual world, it's a different story. "From the Las Vegas sports betting community, everyone I've physically met—away from Twitter—has been absolutely amazing." In fact, it was Jay Kornegay, the respected vice president of Race and Sports Book Operations at the Westgate Casino (home to the NFL SuperContest), who brought Stewart to VICE Sports' attention. "I think when people meet me in person, they come away thinking I'm cool and legit, a real person."
Still, many look at her skeptically. It doesn't help her credibility in some circles that she's the face of a "tout" website, which sells betting picks to interested gambling clients. However, that website is just one facet of Stewart's public life as she has featured spots on local radio and television as well as in the newspaper. Those assignments weren't handed out to just any pretty face. Knowledge and insight were required, however, Stewart says being a woman certainly helped in expanding her presence in the industry. "I wouldn't say I use my looks to an advantage... but obviously it helps," she quips.
Stewart's existence in the sports gambling world makes one wonder: where are the women? Stewart herself has pondered that question. "For the longest time, I thought I was the only woman doing this, but then I talked to some of the old school guys, and they were like, 'Oh, no. There have been other women.' But I wonder where are they now?"
Why aren't more women wagering on sports then? "I think it's because they don't understand," she opines. "I've been playing sports all my life, going to games forever, and I'm a question asker. Even as a kid, when something would happen in a game, I'd ask my dad, 'Why did that happen?' But most women just have a team they root for. They don't bother to really learn the game. They're more concerned with hair, makeup, and nails. Maybe a tweet one of my friends sent sums it up the best: 'Ugly women try to pretend to like sports so men will like them…except for Kelly in Vegas.'"
She swears she doesn't mean to sound sexist. She'd be happy if there were other women handicappers—if they're legit. "I worked really hard to be taken seriously. Don't put a woman out there just for the sake of it. I really want to see a woman who knows what she is talking about. Who has the ambition to learn. If any would reach out to me and ask, 'Kelly, can you teach me?' I'd be more than happy to take on an intern."
Be warned, though, it's not an easy profession—for a man or a woman. "People don't understand how much work bettors put into their wagers," she states. Stewart spends upwards of 40 hours a week breaking down games, trying to find weaknesses in the point spreads. When she doesn't put that sort of effort into her work, it shows. "Last week I went to Denver and only spent about 15 hours on my games," she laments. "I got my teeth kicked in."
Those losses won't slow her down, however. In fact, she admitted something few sports gambling regulars will openly state. "I'm addicted. One hundred and ten percent. I'm not going to lie to you. And don't let anybody else that does what I do say that they're not either. You just can't give it up." The reason for this is simple, "I like winning money. A friend of mine likes to use a quote, and I'll probably screw it up, but it's 'Money won is sweeter than money earned.' It's so true."
This attitude can get her into trouble. It's a pressing need to have action on a game, one that many gamblers can never overcome. "Since football's started, I've probably not bet maybe on two days. I'm talking like a Wednesday and a Tuesday. I don't like the game tonight [I spoke with Stewart an hour before the Redskins faced the Cowboys on Monday Night Football], but I needed some action on the game, so I teased the Cowboys and the over, and I was so bored, I teased the Redskins and the under just to see if I could hit a middle."
"Sometimes that attitude costs me money," she acknowledges. "A lot of the older guys get on me and tell me, 'Kelly, you've got to work on your discipline.'" It's something she's trying to conquer. "I went 2-3 on Saturday which was awful, and considered betting a few of the late games I liked, but I thought, 'I've had enough.' That was good, otherwise I would've lost a couple more games. It's about maintaining discipline within that addiction."
Summing up her place in the topsy-turvy world of sports gambling, Stewart happily points out, "I'm just a nice girl from Kansas." Then quickly adds with a laugh, "But we know that's kind of bullshit."