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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As sports betting booms, pick sellers promise can’t-miss riches

(Illustration by Michael Domine/The Washington Post)
9 min

Five Star Sports Picks — a company that provides wagering recommendations to its paid subscribers — claims people call the tout service “the Michael Jordan of sports betting.” Based on Five Star’s purported win rate, this comparison might be overly generous — to Jordan.

Jordan won 66 percent of his NBA games. Five Star owner Anthony Plenzo says his handicappers got more than 70 percent of their picks right on the NFL and college football last season. Savvy bettors say this level of success is unheard-of, like a golfer shooting in the 50s over 18 holes. But just as golfers can fudge the numbers when keeping their own score, it’s often impossible to verify a gambler’s claimed winnings. Paid pick-selling services are notorious for inflating their résumés, especially when advertising to betting newcomers.

Among pro bettors, “the best of the best win 55 to 60 percent of the time,” said Brandon DuBreuil, head of content at advice site Covers. It’s exceedingly rare to outsmart betting markets year after year and even harder for recreational gamblers to come out ahead after paying for picks. As a result, DuBreuil and other people knowledgeable about betting say buying picks is almost always a poor investment.

“Ninety-nine percent of pick sellers are scam artists preying on the vulnerable,” said Jason Scott, who oversees oddsmaking at BetMGM.

Yet “there’s absolutely no doubt” about the demand for picks, DuBreuil said — and in an era of widely legalized sports betting, incessant sportsbook marketing and a direct pipeline to potential customers on social media, pick sellers are no longer confined to 1-900 lines and tiny print advertisements. There’s also little oversight protecting customers.

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

Bettors wagering at even odds must win at least 52.38 percent of the time to overcome sportsbooks’ standard built-in advantage. Paying for picks puts bettors in a deeper hole, and thus wagering large sums (and winning) is the only way to profit. And yet hundreds if not thousands of gambling touts across the country now sell picks, promising an easy road to riches. They lure subscribers on social media, posting flame emoji alongside screenshots of winning bets. Steven Petrella, director of commercial content at advice site Action Network, said unscrupulous touts seem to be thriving on platforms such as TikTok and Instagram, where they’re more insulated from critics than on Twitter.

For novice gamblers seeking help, it can be virtually impossible to assess whether pick sellers are credible; there’s no Yelp for touts. However, based on interviews with nearly 20 experienced bettors, media members and handicappers, there are some basic tells for spotting scammers, such as hyping short-term hot streaks, which even coin-flippers experience, or failing to document picks, making it impossible for prospective customers to cross-check an advertised win rate.

Plenzo, 31, declined to provide a list of Five Star’s picks, which are unavailable to the public. But he does show off the supposed fruits of his betting on Instagram: a Bentley, flights on private jets and stacks of cash on the hood of a mustard Mercedes-Benz. Recently, Five Star posted the caption “March vibes” with a clip of former president Donald Trump telling rallygoers, “We’re going to win so much, you may even get tired of winning!”

Five Star, which has more than half a million followers on Instagram, sells picks for all major sports. A handful of suggestions for one day of basketball games cost $199, while a month’s worth of picks go for $1,499. Serious bettors recommend wagering about 1 percent of your gambling bankroll on each bet, but Plenzo is confident enough to suggest that a subscriber with $10,000 to bet should wager $2,000 on each Five Star pick. “If you lose it, fire another $2,000,” Plenzo said in an interview, using a bro-ey synonym for bet. “If you lose that, fire another $2,000.”

At that rate, someone could go bust in one day if Five Star’s picks lose. That won’t happen, Plenzo said: “I’ve had people start with a few thousand dollars and earn six figures numerous times.” He said he has been criticized for only promoting Five Star’s winning picks. “I compare it to a bad selfie,” he explained. “Are you going to post the bad selfie? Of course not. You’re a good-looking guy; you took one bad picture.”

Sportsbooks call them risk-free bets. Just don’t read the fine print.

The website Betstamp allows bettors to track their wagers publicly — allowing friends to show off winnings or, perhaps, tease each other for losing. Co-owner Rob Pizzola said he hopes touts will use the service to gain credibility. A little more than a year ago, Betstamp made that pitch to hundreds of online pick sellers. Almost all of them, including Five Star, ignored or declined the invitation, according to Pizzola.

Zach White, a full-time bettor in North Carolina, raised a common critique: If a tout really does reliably win big, “why not just bet your own picks and become rich?” he said. “You wouldn’t be trying to sell a pick for 40 bucks.”

This series will examine the impact of legalized gambling on sports, through news coverage, accountability journalism and advice for navigating this new landscape. Read more.

For the past quarter-century, Edward Golden has been considered an exception to this rule. Industry insiders say his company, Right Angle Sports, is among just a handful of services whose picks consistently win. RAS records its picks on Betstamp, which shows the company going 593-453-14 since 2020 through Sunday. (Picks, verified by Betstamp, are only visible to the public after games begin.)

Golden, 49, lives in California’s Orange County and employs 16 people. His handicappers specialize in men’s college basketball, and since Golden founded the company in 1997, he said, someone betting its men’s college basketball picks would have come out ahead in all but three seasons.

For this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament, RAS’s subscription plan included 75 picks for $2,495, or about $33 per pick. Golden recommends wagering at least 20 times that on each bet.

RAS announces the exact time when each pick will be released, and subscribers must bet within seconds before sportsbooks adjust their lines in response to a flurry of action. Golden says RAS accepts only about 200 subscribers to make it easier for all of them to be able to bet before lines move. Like many pick sellers, RAS also gives out some picks free to attract new customers.

But why bother selling picks? Golden explained that if RAS sells each pick for about $40, the company makes roughly $8,000 per pick. At the expected win rate, it would have to wager about 10 times that to profit the same amount. Considering how aggressively sportsbooks limit how much money winning bettors can wager, gambling $80,000 on every game isn’t easy.

Of course, pick selling isn’t easy, either. “​​There’s such a big difference between winning for yourself and being able to win for others,” Golden said. The amount of deception in his field, he said, “is worse than ever.”

Many touts don’t publicly chart their picks. Those who do might scrub losses from their record-keeping or fudge the odds they were betting against. Those who use a third-party tracker might take credit for winning a fleeting betting opportunity — such as a single sportsbook being slow to update a line — that many of their subscribers wouldn’t have had access to. Touts might take credit for betting lines that were only available in the middle of the night or days before a game, when gambling markets haven’t had time to mature and limits are low. Touts might release picks at odd hours, causing subscribers who are moments late to miss out.

Sportsbooks are sweating their billion-dollar marketing bet

Peter Jennings, a board member of gambling advice site Unabated, said inexperienced bettors can make the mistake of following a tout’s advice even after the line has moved. A team that might be a smart wager as a three-point favorite, in other words, might be a bad investment as a five-point favorite. “There’s not a right side; there’s a right price,” he said. Failing to specify what lines and odds are worth betting, he added, should be considered “a huge red flag” when evaluating touts. Simply recommending “bet the over on the Wizards game” is all but useless.

Jennings is also involved with Establish the Run, which sells picks for daily fantasy games and recently added NFL and NBA prop bets. Matthew Davidow, co-author of “The Logic of Sports Betting,” is among several industry veterans interviewed for this story who cited Establish the Run as another established winner. The site includes prominent disclaimers: “There are no guarantees about our success,” “If you do win, your betting account could get limited,” and so on. Prospective subscribers, Jennings said, won’t see co-owner Adam Levitan “driving around in a Ferrari.”

“We don’t want people coming in expecting to get rich quick,” Levitan said. “We want people who are here to grind with us.”

There doesn’t appear to be much policing of pick sellers. “Interestingly, betting touts generally fall outside of the direct purview of gaming regulators,” said Behnam Dayanim, partner at law firm Orrick. The exceptions are touts working as licensed affiliates of gaming operators. Otherwise, Dayanim said, touts are subject to “proscriptions against false and deceptive practices that would apply to any other business.”

And yet colorful claims and outlandish boasts abound in the industry.

Steve Maltepes, who calls himself “The Philly Godfather,” works with a group of touts who charge for picks. A “VIP Plan” costs $800 per month, and Maltepes says someone wagering $100 per bet using this plan would have made $23,290 in 2021. His website offers little information about the service, including documentation of its win rate.

Asked via a Twitter direct message about his business, Maltepes replied: “I don’t sell daily or weekly picks. I’m not a tout.” He also sent a link to an article “describing my life,” which references him selling “daily picks on pro and college sports.”

A disclaimer on the Five Star Sports Picks website is even more puzzling: “Our services should never be used for gambling purposes. By signing up for any service on our website, you are agreeing to not use our services for the intent of gambling.”

“It’s [for] protection purposes” in the event of a lawsuit, Plenzo said, adding that the disclaimer is “really just to be completely transparent.”