Sportsbooks say you can win big. Then they try to limit winners.

(Screenshots from sources; Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Evan Fournier seemed poised for a big night. The New York Knicks’ guard tends to torch the Boston Celtics, his previous team, and Beau Wagner, an attorney in the Chicago area, couldn’t believe that DraftKings was giving Fournier just 50-to-1 odds of being the top scorer when the Knicks faced the Celtics in January.

A serious sports bettor, Wagner, 42, wagered $1,000 on Fournier. Stars like Jayson Tatum and Julius Randle were favorites to be the game’s top scorer, but in Wagner’s eyes, Fournier’s odds were too good to pass up.

He was right: The Knicks’ sharpshooter scored a game-high 41 points.

Wagner tweeted a screenshot of his $50,000 winning ticket, and the official DraftKings account retweeted it with the caption, “BEAU KNOWS BETTING.”

A printout of the tweet hangs on Wagner’s wall. But his appreciation for DraftKings quickly gave way to resentment. A day after his Fournier bet, Wagner discovered that DraftKings wouldn’t let him bet more than $100 on an NBA game. A few days later, he tried to place another prop bet through the online sportsbook and wasn’t allowed to put down more than $3.63.

“The major problem I have is that DraftKings used my ticket to make it seem like you can win big, just like they do in their commercials,” Wagner said. “You promote my tweet and literally the next morning, I’m limited.”

DraftKings isn’t alone. Many U.S. sportsbook operators are seeking to boost profits by weeding out winning customers. Bettors who show signs of savvy are being limited faster and more aggressively than in the past, based on interviews with 20 bookmakers and accomplished bettors. As a result, Americans who are trying to make sports gambling their livelihood — or at least a profitable side hustle — are going to extreme lengths to evade limits: betting through proxies, sprinkling in deliberately dumb bets and wearing team jerseys when betting in person in an effort to pass as a “square.” Some have even returned to unregulated bookies, who don’t limit their action nearly as much.

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Although some states, such as New Jersey, prohibit sportsbooks from banning rule-abiding customers simply for winning, imposing different limits on different customers is allowed nationwide. Sophisticated bettors, or “sharps,” point out that if they aren’t allowed to bet more than pocket change, they might as well be banned. Asked about that apparent loophole, a spokesperson for New Jersey’s Division of Gaming Enforcement said, “We are not in a position to evaluate hypotheticals.”

Dan Hartman, director of Colorado’s Division of Gaming, said there is no right to be a professional sports gambler. “It’s a form of entertainment,” he said.

Several leading sportsbooks, including DraftKings, either declined or did not respond to interview requests for this story.

FanDuel, the leading U.S. sportsbook, calls itself an entertainment company. DraftKings CEO Jason Robbins caused a stir among serious bettors last year by declaring, “This is an entertainment activity. People who are doing this for profit are not the players we want.” The not-so-subtle implication: The company is only interested in losers.

Sports betting can’t exist without some form of limits. “If Warren Buffett came in tonight and wanted a billion dollars on the Bears game, of course we wouldn’t take that,” said Chris Andrews, director of the South Point sportsbook in Las Vegas. But American bookmakers are increasingly adopting what’s known as the European model, Andrews said: ruthlessly “sacking” winning customers. “A friend of mine tried to bet a 30-to-1 future,” Andrews said. “They gave him 35 cents. It’s ridiculous.”

One professional bettor in New Jersey started on a losing streak at BetMGM. “They were rolling out the red carpet, offering me a lot of different promotions,” says the bettor, who, like several people quoted for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of his desire to not be flagged by other sportsbooks. Once he started winning, his limits were slashed; now BetMGM won’t let him bet more than $10 on some games. “It’s hard to tell me that you care about responsible betting when somebody’s down six figures and you keep enticing them to bet more,” he said, “but once they get close to even, you cut them down drastically.”

Life in ‘a brand new industry’

Although genuine sharps might make up less than 1 percent of the betting public, bookmakers say, recent limiting policies impact as much as 10 percent of customers. Among pro bettors, DraftKings, BetMGM and PointsBet are frequently cited for imposing the harshest limits. Caesars and WynnBET are praised by some for offering high limits. The sharps’ favorite place to bet appears to be Circa Sports, which posts high limits available to all customers, regardless of skill.

Sportsbooks have many ways of identifying sharps. The pros tend to bet as much as possible, and generally don’t bet close to gametime, by which point the market has matured and the lines are sharper. Above all, bookmakers will probably impose limits on customers who consistently get good closing line value. For example, if someone bets on the Washington Commanders early in the week when they are seven-point underdogs, and by Sunday the spread has dropped to 5, the bettor “got the best of the number,” even if the Commanders end up losing by 10.

“I’ve seen people get limited before that are down thousands of dollars, but they’re consistently beating the line,” said Rob Pizzola, a professional bettor. “It feels like a lot of these sportsbooks are extremely risk averse. If there’s even a 75 percent chance you’re going to win over time, they would rather just not take your action.”

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Some experts on the other side of the counter agree. “Too many accounts get limited, and those that get limited are limited too harshly,” said Chris Fargis, senior director of trading risk at the sportsbook that Fanatics, the merchandise giant, plans to launch next year. Fargis, who previously ran the DraftKings sportsbook, says large digital operators are forced to make some limiting decisions using automation. Modern software often lacks the “granularity,” Fargis said, to limit a certain customer on one type of bet but not another. Even good technology doesn’t negate the need for skilled employees, he added. “Some operators just don’t choose to staff heavily against that problem.”

Nick Bogdanovich, a longtime Las Vegas bookmaker who works at Circa after nearly a decade at William Hill, concurs. “It’s a brand new industry” in many states, he said. “It’s not like there’s hundreds of qualified bookmakers out there. You’re training a lot of guys who are green.”

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But software and staffing only explain so much. The aggressive crackdown on winners highlights a fundamental debate in gambling: Some bettors know how to overcome the house’s built-in advantage. Do their strategies amount to taking advantage of the sportsbook, or simply playing the game strategically?

One serious sports bettor in Colorado used to get booted from casino blackjack tables for card counting. “Counting cards is definitely not cheating,” he said. “You’re just using your mind.” The same could be said of tactics that get sports bettors limited.

For example, sportsbooks are known to limit customers who bet “steam” — quickly betting outdated lines at books that are slower to adapt to changing markets. On the other hand, line shopping is a basic part of intelligent betting. “If I was in the mall and four different stores have the same pair of sneakers, I’m going to see who’s got the lowest price,” said a New Jersey-based bettor who goes by Markus Ericsen on Twitter. “Why do I get punished for doing that with sports lines?”

Sportsbooks are also quick to limit bettors who are winning props — specific, situational wagers — arguing that props are a promotional gimmick to bring in customers, not the bread and butter of betting. Gamblers, meanwhile, say that books should take action on any line they’re confident enough to offer.

Traditionally, bookmakers have tolerated sharps because they help steer price discovery — the process of finding the best line. “We found out over the past three decades, it’s best to limit them rather than kick them out,” said Jay Kornegay, executive vice president of operations at SuperBook Sports. “We use their information to make our lines as strong as they can be.”

“The bookmaker/bettor relationship does not have to be antagonistic,” said Rufus Peabody, a pro bettor and co-founder of the gambling advice site Unabated. “The problem is that all these books want another book to take the sharp action and then essentially just free ride and copy their lines.”

There is — or at least there once was — an etiquette to sports betting. In exchange for a book taking their action, sharps would self-police. If a bookmaker had a so-called fat finger and posted an obvious mistake, “You wouldn’t go and bet it, you would tell the bookmaker that it was wrong,” said the legendary Las Vegas bookmaker Roxy Roxborough. “Those personal relationships don’t exist anymore in the online world.”

Now, faced with what bettors consider egregious limits, self-restraint goes out the window. “If you feel really screwed over by a book,” Peabody said, “you’re going to be more likely to try to exploit any mistake you can.”

Evading limits with ‘beards'

At some brick-and-mortar sportsbooks, bettors can bet at kiosks in addition to the counter. Although kiosks have lower limits, it’s easier to bet anonymously through them. “It’s become a personal ATM for a lot of professionals,” said the New Jersey-based sharp Gadoon “Spanky” Kyrollos.

Kyrollos, who employs 13 people for his betting operation, says because of limits, most of his bets are placed through other people, known as “beards.” Sharps dream of “flipping whales”: wealthy bettors with a history of losing who have exceptionally high limits. The actor Ashton Kutcher once told Esquire that he collaborated with a betting syndicate, winning $750,000 in four weeks of college football.

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A former schoolteacher in New Jersey who goes by The Hitman on Twitter says he uses beards to place bets through roughly 25 accounts at one major sportsbook. He works in collaboration with a childhood friend who lives in Las Vegas. The friend is tasked with finding longtime losers who are willing to place bets in exchange for a cut of the winnings.

By helping turn squares into winners, some sharps view themselves as a sort of Robin Hood; “These books are grossing tens of millions of dollars off of people’s mistakes or addictions,” the friend said. “We’re the good guys.”

Even with his network of beards, because of limits, The Hitman also bets through dozens of unregulated bookies. “The average local bookie gives me $200 on props,” he said. “How can BetMGM, a billion-dollar business, give me $10, and the woman booking out of her bra in Atlantic City is giving me $200? It just doesn’t make sense.”

By imposing severe limits, regulated operators are pushing business to illegal bookies and offshore operations. A longtime bettor who goes by Brock Landers on Twitter said in an interview that when more than a dozen regulated sportsbooks opened in New Jersey, he was excited to be done with the stressful and, at times, unsafe process of betting illegally. Within months, harsh limits had him back betting through local connections.

“It’s kind of crazy that we thought regulation would clean up all the issues with illegal gambling,” he said. “It’s not like anything has been solved.”

Flipping whales and wearing disguises at sportsbooks might sound like the plot of the next “Ocean’s 11” sequel, “but believe me, it’s the biggest pain in the a-- in the world,” Kyrollos said. “The challenge is no longer winning. The challenge is making sure that I’m able to bet enough to make my business sustainable.”

As a result, he encourages people to think twice about pursuing his profession. “If you’re smart enough to be successful in sports betting,” he said, “you can make a lot more money in an industry where you’re not penalized and ostracized and treated like a thief.”

Matthew Metcalf, director of Circa Sports, says he and his colleagues try to have conversations with customers suspected of doing something that could get them limited. “Nine times out of 10,” he said, “guys are friendly and say, ‘Hey, I really appreciate you reaching out.’ ”

He believes the burgeoning industry needs to work to restore the good-faith relationship between sharps and sportsbooks. “You can’t have a business without customers,” Metcalf said, “and you can’t abuse your customers long term.”