Bookies and bookmakers are the people who take bets on sporting events. They are usually thought to be men. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Marisa Lankester was one of the few women working in what might be termed the bookmaking industry, taking sports bets and grading them as wins or a losses.
In the United States, it is illegal to partake in sports betting outside of a regulated establishment, like a Las Vegas sportsbook. In 1986, Ms. Lankester went to work for Ron “The Cigar” Sacco. The media has called him one of the most successful people in that industry. At the end of his operation, before authorities got involved down in the Dominican Republic and shut it down, the FBI reported that Ron’s operation was taking in over one billion dollars a year.
For Ms. Lankester, her story is a rare female perspective on the early days off offshore sports betting in the Caribbean. She started in Los Angeles before moving to the Dominican Republic with the rest of the staff because Ron Sacco’s operation kept having issues with authorities in the United States.
Her new book titled Dangerous Odds: My Secret Life Inside an Illegal Billion Dollar Sports Betting Operation is an in-depth portrayal on her life in the sports betting industry. Marisa’s story is full of drama and tragedy, but somehow she found the inner toughness to keep going. Her story is currently being considered to be made into a movie. Today, she lives in Switzerland and now feels safe to tell her story.
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Responding to if she is the first woman of offshore gambling, Marisa says this:
“I was definitely the first woman to start working in Ron’s [Sacco] office in California, in Los Angeles in 1986. When I moved offshore and joined in the Dominican Republic, I was one the few women. We did have a couple other female clerks. … It was my favorite job ever. I loved being a clerk.”
In why she wanted to pen almost 400 pages on her life working in the sports betting industry, the former first female employee of Ron Sacco’s operation said this:
“A lot of years have passed. There are a few characters that have died, which was ok for me in regards to the story. I started Googling myself and I found that there was a lot on the Internet, which was a surprise for me. It felt like my past was kind of catching up with me. I’m in Switzerland now, I Google my name and I can read about my arrests, etc. And also I have two daughters and I wanted them to know really what I went through and that it’s ok as a woman to be tough.”
She had ambitions to be an artist, had put together an art portfolio and had motivations to attend the Cooper Union School of Art in New York. But Ms. Lankester says her professor lost her entire portfolio and she was never able to recover and continue persuing her art ambitions. It was during that period her father, a high ranking UN Official, and her mother were on the verge of divorce. She agrees she felt lost during that period and then found a place to belong, working in the world of sports betting for Ron Sacco.
“When my portfolio disappeared, I had a very difficult time starting over again. This was so huge for me. I mean I was also quite young. This was very dramatic. I didn’t know how to start over. And there wasn’t anything else that I wanted to be. So yeah, I definitely was struggling when I got into this business, definitely. … I left New York to get away from that. It was a very difficult situation to deal with. It was a horrific divorce. So going to Vancouver, and going to school was definitely a way to put distance between myself and the problems that my parents were going through.
And then again, you know, you’re in a situation, I was at university, I had no clue what else I wanted to be. And there was certainly some anger on my part that, I mean, it was a year’s worth of work, but it was a lot of work. … It was a big loss for me and I resented the fact that there was not more done to find it. I didn’t lose my portfolio. My professor lost my portfolio.”
Being hired by Ron “The Cigar” Sacco gave Marisa the chance to be around Tony Ballestrasse. The two would start dating and get married after working together. Mr. Ballestrasse was in charge of Ron’s sportsbook operation on a day to day basis. After getting arrested a few times in America, Marisa stuck around and moved to the Dominican Republic with Tony. They both worked for Ron’s offshore betting operation. Speaking about her ex-husband’s reaction to the book and why she stuck around after the arrests in America, Ms. Lankester said this:
“I’ve heard the reaction from Tony. Yeah, I mean, he likes the book. He said, I mean, there’s no surprises for him. You know, he said, ‘I lived through it.’ I think it’s sad what happened at the end between Ron and Tony. I don’t believe the two of them have been in touch. It’s a shame for me because otherwise I really liked Ron. I thought he was a great businessman and I think it was just panic in the end. He [Ron] was looking at a long jail sentence. It was a way to get out of that. … I was absolutely, passionately in love with Tony. Deeply, passionately in love with him and if I had quit, I wouldn’t have been able to be with him.
And the second reason is that, I know this sounds awful, I was able to justify in my own mind, well, I’m Canadian you know. I’m only down here for a while. I didn’t see this as being my long term future. So it was kind of easy to think, well, I’ve got a record in the United States. But doesn’t matter because I’ll go back to Canada and it won’t exist there and, you know, I’ll go on with my life one day.”
After Ron Sacco believed there was too much heat from the authorities to continue running his operation in America, the sports betting business was moved to the Dominican Republic. It was the pre-Internet era of offshore sports gambling where bettors would call a number in the Dominican Republic to place money on a game. Today, there are bettors who illegally place their wagers over the computer. The former sportsbook clerk said this about how it all began and the state of the industry today:
“We were the first ones to go offshore. So the company’s in the Dominican Republic. We had lawyers on staff. Like I said, the information was given out there. Everything else was in the states. It’s a fine legal line granted. But to put someone away for that long, no. I think this is continuing now with the offshore gambling in other countries where the Americans are being more and more aggressive about going after people who are, who live in one country, who have a business in one country, who have their bank accounts in another country. I think it’s become dangerous and I think it should just be legalized.”
Ron Sacco’s operation in the Dominican Republic at the end of its existence was reportedly taking in over one billion dollars a year. Marisa confirms the one billion dollar number and shares information on the company:
“At the end yes. And I will say that’s been reported by authorities. So that’s the number I like to use. In the beginning in 1986, when I was first arrested, I believe it was 40 million a year. We had hundreds and hundreds of players, difficult to keep track. … We were taking big bets in the office where I worked. That was the, actual what was called the big office, so professional gamblers, where we took $10,000 on a football game. We had people betting easily $70,000, $80,000 on a good day. It was an extraordinaire amount of money going through the office. …
I think Ron was very good about screening his players. They all had limits. We had people who had half a million dollar limits in that office. That was, you could see that. You know, some people were, had let’s say $300,000 dollar limits or $200,000, $100,000 or you know, $80,000. And if they got close to losing that amount, they would have to talk to their agent and get cleared before they played again. I believe that the people that played in the big office, they had the money to lose. They could afford to lose that much money.”
Run “The Cigar” Sacco has been touted as one of the success stories off the sports betting world. 60 Minutes even did an interview with him about his illegal operation in the Dominican Republic. On what made Ron a success, the author told us this:
“I think Ron paid. He paid. He was, if you made a bet with Ron and you won, you got that money. And I think that that’s what separated him from a lot of other people that are in this business. He was just consistently good about taking care of his players. I believe that he was a fair boss. I mean, we got paid, we got bonuses. I think he just ran a very good business. He was likable. He was fun. He took care of his employees and he took care of his players. That’s it.”
Though she does not disclose much in Dangerous Odds, Marisa admits that Ron Sacco’s gambling enterprise did have ties to the mob:
“I know that there were ties to the mob. I haven’t gone into a lot of detail in the book. It’s a subject maybe I should stay away from. I know that as we moved East that we were, we had ties to the mob. I mean that’s certainly true. … There are things I think that, stories that don’t need to be told. I also knew that when I wrote the book, I would not be going back to the Dominican Republic. And as much as I loved the island, I would not go back down there.”
In between all the gambling, the blonde beauty did modeling campaigns in the Dominican Republic. She even starred as an extra in the Robert Redford movie Havana, which was shot there. Marisa says she spent three days working with actor Richard Portnow. She claims he invited her out for a good time, but being married at the time, she never went and met him. It is something she regrets not going through with, but admits it would have been cheating:
“I still do, still do. I had so much fun with him. I think we had great chemistry. It was three days. It was an enormous amount of fun. I thought he was charming and delightful, very funny and basically, we were standing at a pillar for three days while he was, you know, doing his lines with Robert Redford at the table. I certainly regretted it afterwards and still would love to have gone through or answered his invitation, but I was still married at the time, and yeah, I mean, you know, in the end it would have been cheating.”
After Ron Sacco’s operation came to an end in the Dominican Republic, Marisa says she did end up going to work for another gambling operation:
“I went to work for two Cubans in the Dominican Republic. But I’d like to stress that this had no ties to the United States at all. I was setting the line. They had seven offices in the Dominican Republic and I worked from a computer. So I was getting the lines from Las Vegas, the bets were computerized and I was just adjusting the lines.”
Ms. Lankester would love to see the sports betting industry regulated and legalized. She says between $380 and $500 billion go to offshore gambling every year:
“I think it needs to be legalized. I think the fact that gambling, you can only do it in four states, and I’m talking about sports gambling specifically, is absurd. I know Chris Christie, New Jersey Governor is trying to fight to have it legalized in his state so that he could have the revenues. I mean they desperately need it. And he’s being sued by the NCAA and the four major sports leagues because they think that it will ruin the integrity of the game. But that argument is absurd because if it’s ok to do it in four states, then why wouldn’t it be ok across America. There’s anywhere between 380 and 500 billion dollars a year that are going offshore. And certainly if it were regulated and taxed, a good chunk of that money could be put to use in the United States.”
This very unique story of hers as a woman in the sports betting industry is under consideration to be made into a movie.
“We have had certainly interest right away. And actually, I had interest before the book was out. There was a treatment written a few years ago, but it was very clear when I read the treatment that the movie was going to be different than the truth, which is why I decided to write the book. I wanted to have it as accurate as possible. I’ve been a stickler for detail. All the arrests, all the court cases, everything, the appearances, they’re all, that’s when it happened. What’s written in the book is when it happened. And I think the movie will be different, but just as exciting. And so yeah, we’ve had interest. It’s with, the book is with two studios now. I think I can say that. And we expect, we expect it to be picked [up]. I mean, it’s a great story.”
Finally, for any American partaking in offshore gambling today, even though it is illegal to do so, Marisa has this piece of advice:
“Be careful. The days of having Ron [Sacco] be there to pay if you won I think are over. I think it’s more difficult to find a good reputable bookmaker. So I would just say proceed with caution.”
You can purchase a copy and find out more information about Marisa Lankester’s book Dangerous Odds here.
The Facebook page for Dangerous Odds is here.
You can email Chris Yandek at ChrisYandek@CYInterview.com
You can follow Chris Yandek on Twitter here.