Mickey Appleman is a multi-time WSOP champion and sports betting guru. We find out his secrets: “Pride and ego are achilles heels for gamblers”

Mickey Appleman, the ‘Handicapping Jesus’ from New York, gets his kicks from sports betting more than poker but still played with legends

Mickey Appleman looks like a hippie, plays like a prince, and once ranked as the biggest sports bettor in the US (one bookie nicknamed him the Handicapping Jesus). He’s nearly always in action and arouses fear at the poker table. Appleman has won four WSOP bracelets from 25 final table appearances and has earned $1.5m in tournaments.

When did you realise that you had a knack for picking sports?

In 1973 I was playing poker and somebody gave me a parlay sheet. I hit three out of four winners. During the next three weeks, I went four for four each week. The guy who gave it to me was friendly with a degenerate gambler who hooked me up with one of the top bookmakers in New York. I quickly became a known sports guy. I never lost in the 1970s. In fact, I didn’t have a losing year until 1986.

Considering that you make money from poker and sports, how do you decide what you want to focus on at a given time?

When sports betting gets very high, nothing compares. If you’re beating sports, you can create your own stakes, which you can’t do in poker. If I’m betting $50,000 or $100,000 on various games, why would I want to play poker for a smaller win?

How high does poker need to get in order for it to be interesting?

I’ve always been an earner in poker, and I’ve always been able to win when I need to win. But, depending on how much cash I have, I’m willing to play as low as $100/$200.

Are people surprised to see you playing for such low stakes?

Occasionally. But you have to put ego aside. To survive gambling for most of your adult life, you need to be flexible. Pride and ego are achilles heels for gamblers. They take themselves too seriously and put too much stock in successful runs. You need to play tight when cards aren’t coming your way and to parlay things when you’re doing well.

But that’s all perception, right? I mean, the cards are the cards.

Well, here’s the thing: when you’re way ahead in a poker game, necessarily other people are losing and they are probably playing below par. So if I play aggressively when I’m ahead, I might win more than I ordinarily would. But the converse is also true. That’s when it comes down to damage control. If you’re stuck $25,000, make it your goal to come out with a loss of $20k. “Play tight when cards aren’t coming your way and parlay things when you’re doing well” When you’re stuck big, downsize your definition of success for that particular day.

When did you start travelling to Vegas?

In 1976. I went and played against legends like Pug Pearson, Jack Straus and Bobby Baldwin.

What were your impressions of Las Vegas back in ’76?

The city was like a gambling club. There was a lot of camaraderie among the players. And I remember Benny Binion introducing himself, saying, ‘I’ve heard good things about you. Don’t worry about anything. I’m watching out for you.’

Sounds sweet.

I thought it was. I travelled all over the place, ate good meals, stayed in nice hotels, played high stakes golf. In 1985 I played Gabe Kaplan for half-a-million dollars.

Who won?

We settled and I took a profit. But it was a stupid thing to do. It compromised our friendship.

Massive personal wagers seem rampant these days. What do you think of gambling friends making huge golf bets with each other?

As I’ve got older I’ve realised how stupid it is. It’s about egos being out of control. But I was just a high-roller back then. I’d have gambled on anything. One time I was golfing with Jack Straus and the wind was very strong. I hit a four wood onto the green. He said it was a lucky shot. We wound up betting $100,000 that I could do it again in 20 shots. I lost, but I was right – my shots were hole-high but not staying on the green.

That was different from gambling with Gabe because you and Jack Straus were both professionals, right?

To some degree it’s true. But, in that instance, Jack challenged me. With Gabe I took advantage of a friend who was an entertainer. Of course, though, he thought he was taking advantage of me.

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