Chris Calcano wasn’t convinced the $56,000 credited to the FanDuel sports betting account he had opened earlier in the day was legitimate.
If real, it was game-changing money for the 26-year-old former Rowan University defensive back, who had been tackling a recent rough stretch of life.
After tearing an ACL playing basketball, he was on crutches and unable to work for months. Bills mounted, and a roommate bailed on him. Calcano reluctantly accepted what many bachelors in their 20s consider rock bottom — moving back in with his parents.
“I was literally at the low point of my life,” he told ESPN.
On Sept. 16, a Sunday, Calcano was at his longtime buddy Mike Guerriero’s new house in Paterson, New Jersey, to watch — and legally bet on — Week 2 of the NFL season.
Guerriero owns two Gelotti ice cream stores in North Jersey, and Calcano is his general manager. Both coming from hardscrabble backgrounds, they are tight and have bet recreationally together for “longer than we were supposed to,” Guerriero says. (Sports betting was only authorized in the state of New Jersey in June 2018.) They are more serious ice cream makers than sports bettors, though, and like to target giant underdogs at long odds, risking a little in hopes of sharing a big jackpot like the one Calcano thought he may have just hit.
He was one of 12 bettors who had jumped all over an 18-second bookmaker’s mistake on the Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders game. The $56,000 was in his account, but the way things had been going, he thought, “Is this really happening?”
Less than 24 hours later, the money was gone, kicking off a wild tale of the most infamous palpable error in U.S. bookmaking history and two New Jersey friends in their 20s, who, perhaps against all odds, would go on to shake up the world of competitive gelato making, all thanks to a serendipitous $75 bet on the Broncos.
Legal bookmakers began taking bets in several states outside of Nevada this past season, with some operating in the shadows of NFL stadiums.
It stoked fears of corruption, scandal and the erosion of the integrity of sports. Yet, a fixed game or crooked referee didn’t cause the biggest gambling controversy of 2018 — a bookie’s typo did.
On that fateful Sunday, before the early kickoffs, Calcano downloaded the FanDuel mobile sports betting app and opened his first account with an initial $100 deposit. He promptly lost it all on a prop on Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger scoring more than 2.5 touchdowns at triple-digit odds against the Kansas City Chiefs. Calcano thought he won big after Roethlisberger threw for three touchdowns and rushed for another, only to find out that touchdown passes weren’t counted for the wager.
After losing his account balance on the Roethlisberger prop, Calcano reloaded in the afternoon and discovered that FanDuel allowed bets throughout a game at live odds. He placed his first in-game wager on the New England Patriots, who were down two touchdowns to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the second half. The Patriots never rallied, and Calcano was left with $75 in his account, when CBS switched to the final minutes of a close AFC West tilt between Denver and the Raiders.
With the Broncos trailing 19-17, Calcano watched as they crossed midfield and drove into comfortable field goal range with 18 seconds to play. He had the sportsbook app open and quickly glanced at the live odds on the game. He saw Denver — driving into position for a go-ahead field goal with only seconds remaining — listed as a 750-1 underdog to win the game.
At that point, while rushing to get his $75 bet in, Calcano said it didn’t dawn on him that there might have been an error with the odds: “I thought they were just crazy odds,” he said.
FanDuel had attempted to update its live odds to reflect the Broncos as commanding -600 favorites. Instead, a glitch resulted in Denver being offered as a +75,000 (750-1) underdog, an absurd price at any point of any NFL game, let alone one that’s close in the final minute.
Denver kicker Brandon McManus hit the short field goal, lifting the Broncos to a 20-19 win, and Calcano and Guerriero began to celebrate.
Still somewhat in disbelief, Calcano called FanDuel to ask for confirmation that the $56,000 in his account was legitimate. He said a customer service agent assured him that it was and congratulated him on the big win.
“Mike and I were hitting each other’s hands so much and so hard that that my hand was beating,” Calcano recalled. “I couldn’t believe it. There was always a little piece in my mind, a little doubt that this was too good to be true.”
When times were tough, when meals and a roof to sleep under were hard to come by, Guerriero dreamed of running his own business, in part, so he could give himself and friends like Calcano Sundays off to hang out and watch football. Times were tough not too long ago.
Guerriero, now bearded with short dark hair and black-rimmed glasses, grew up without parents. His mom was in and out of prison, and his dad wasn’t in the picture. He bounced around government housing, coming up in some rough areas.
“There was always a little piece in my mind, a little doubt that this was too good to be true.”
“I lived in 14 different apartments and went to 14 different schools before I even got to seventh grade,” Guerriero said.
After an uncle who had taken him in passed away 10 years ago, Guerriero was left homeless and was forced to drop out of high school to look for work to support himself. When he found his uncle deceased, he called Calcano for help. They have remained close, supporting each other through thick and thin.
Still in his teens, Guerriero found employment, a mentor and a passion with the man some say introduced New Jersey to gelato, Sal Sigona. A native of Sicily, Sigona opened the first Gelotti in spring of 1984, an old-fashion ice cream parlor with modern twists and a prominent Main Street storefront in Paterson.
Guerriero took it all in, falling in love with the artistry of gelato and the business of ice cream. He eventually got his GED and enrolled in community college, but he found himself wanting to get out of class to get to work at Gelotti. A professor soon advised him to put school on hold and dedicate himself to his passion — gelato.
It wasn’t a smooth ride up the gelato ladder, but on Nov. 14, 2014, Guerriero got the keys to his own Gelotti store. His first hire was Calcano. They opened for business the next day and have been thriving.
Last summer, Guerriero received an invitation to compete in the prestigious Gelato Festival, when it made a tour stop in Santa Barbara, California. He wanted his shot. However, with the slower winter season approaching, a cross-country trip wasn’t in the company budget. As he sat at his house watching football with Calcano, the trip seemed out of reach, unless they could make FanDuel pay up.
In international sports betting markets, such bookmaking mistakes are considered palpable errors and commonly referred to as “palps.”
They are essentially typos: Sometimes they happen within computer coding that automates the oddsmaking process; other times bookmakers accidentally hit the wrong key, adding one too many zeros when inputting a point spread or over/under total. In a November college basketball game, for example, a New Jersey sportsbook mistakenly posted North Dakota as a 26-point favorite over Kentucky, instead of making the Wildcats big favorites as they intended.
“The analogy would be walking into a jewelry store and seeing a diamond necklace on sale for a dollar,” FanDuel CEO Matt King said in a recent phone interview, recounting the Broncos palpable error.
In the U.K., sportsbooks often settle palpable errors by paying the wager at what the consensus market odds were on the event at the time the bet was placed. FanDuel, which is owned by longtime U.K. bookmaker Paddy Power Betfair, initially followed their international protocol for palps when the Broncos mistake happened.
At some sportsbooks, bettors who try to take advantage of obvious mistakes often are banned from making future wagers — it’s viewed as unethical or a cheap ploy to exploit a book’s mistakes. Sophisticated sports bettors know this and will alert bookmakers if they spot an obvious line error to try to stay in their good graces. However, to novice bettors like Calcano, it simply looked like a fair bet made at the posted odds. He thought he deserved to get paid, and so did Guerriero.
On Tuesday, a day after rescinding the money, FanDuel informed Calcano via email that his bet on the Broncos “involved an obvious pricing error inadvertently generated by our in-game pricing system” and therefore was invalidated. FanDuel said, in accordance with its house rules, the payout should reflect the correct odds of -600, which would have resulted in $12.50 for Calcano. As a courtesy, FanDuel offered $255.
Calcano declined. He wasn’t as much angry about the decision as he was simply depressed. This seemed like just another example of how things had been going for him lately.
Guerriero wasn’t about to let his longtime friend go down without a fight. Together, they sought legal advice. The best move, they were told, was to make the story go viral.
By Wednesday, they had accomplished that goal.
A $75 bet had turned into a major story in mainstream media. Experienced punters from the United Kingdom chuckled as Americans raged on social media. ESPN’s Scott Van Pelt addressed the controversy on SportsCenter, reluctantly siding with FanDuel. “I would never, never root for the house, because who does that?” Van Pelt quipped. “But, in this case, you’ve got to be kidding.”
Even McManus, the Broncos’ kicker, weighed in, tweeting: “Pay the People!!”
Pay The People!!! They put their hard earned money on me to win that game https://t.co/I7bJMj5ypd
— Brandon McManus (@thekidmcmanus) September 20, 2018
As the firestorm over the palpable error escalated, behind the scenes, the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement encouraged FanDuel to pay the bets at the 750-1 odds.
On Thursday, three days after rescinding Calcano’s winnings, the bookmaker made good, paying out all 12 bets at 750-1 odds. The typo that had stood for 18 seconds without being corrected ended up costing FanDuel around $200,000.
King, FanDuel’s CEO, said the company has since implemented more approval layers and a process that allows for more thorough examination of disputes.
“One of the things the palpable error taught us was that before making the initial decision, instead of defaulting to what’s done internationally, we should take a step back and say what’s the right thing in this situation,” King said.
Calcano received a call from FanDuel on Thursday afternoon, notifying him of the decision to pay him the $56,000. It hit his account that same day, and the celebration was back on. His first purchase? Two plane tickets and hotel reservations to Santa Barbara for Guerriero and his wife. Calcano even offered to stay in New Jersey and manage the stores while Guerriero hit the Gelato Festival.
“It wasn’t even a discussion,” Calcano said of his generosity. “I felt like in my heart that I had do that.”
In 2010, a young Tuscan entrepreneur launched the first Gelato Festival in an attempt to introduce a new generation to the smooth, dense and often colorful Italian version of ice cream. The festival has since blossomed into the premier gelato-making contest, with tour stops in five continents over five years and culminating with the World Masters in 2021 in Italy. There are even world rankings.
“If you know gelato, you know the Gelato Festival,” one former contestant said.
To put in sports terms, it is the Olympics of gelato — and heading into the 2018 Santa Barbara competition, an American-born chef had never won it. Guerriero’s “Blueberry Basil,” featuring New Jersey-grown blueberries, would change that.
In October, Guerriero bested a world-class field. The victory earned him an invitation to compete in Italy and a spot in the world gelato rankings.
“None of it would have been possible without FanDuel,” Guerriero said (now ranked 16th) just a few weeks after returning from his trip to Italy.
Business at Gelotti has boomed since Guerriero’s win, and customers still come into to the stores and say, “Aren’t you the guys who won the big bet? I read about you. ‘Did they ever pay you?'”
“Yes, they did,” says Calcano.