Casino owner bet big that Michigan would win it all. Instead, he watched $1 million slip away

Derek and Nicole Stevens had reason to get excited when Michigan took an early lead and their $1 million payday looked in reach. Then Villanova got hot.
(David Montero / Los Angeles Times)

A downtown Las Vegas casino owner bet $25,000 one month ago that the University of Michigan would sweep through the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and win the national championship.

That result would translate to a cool $1-million payout for Derek Stevens, owner of the D Hotel and Casino, and a financially tough year for Tony Miller, the sports book director at Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino. Miller said Stevens’ prospective $1-million payout would result in “a big hole for us to climb out of.”

It was the house versus a house. Something had to give.

Miller met Stevens at the D’s Longbar on Monday night to watch the championship game between Michigan and Villanova. Miller hoped Villanova would exert the dominance that had put it on the verge of its second national title in three years. Stevens brought his fan-based superstitions — and a hedge bet in case Villanova proved to be too much for Michigan magic.


Stevens sat in the same seat at the bar that he had when Michigan knocked off upstart Loyola University Chicago in the semifinals. He wore a custom-made Michigan vest and a Michigan hat. His wife, Nicole Stevens, wore her Michigan gear and placed a Pope Francis bobblehead on the bar. God vs. the odds — never mind that Villanova is a Catholic school.

“I’ve been doing this since the ‘80s and I’ve never had a $1-million payout on a college basketball game,” Miller said, hovering around the roped-off area where friends, family and employees of the D gathered to watch the game.

The game initially broke in Stevens’ favor. Some quick buckets and Michigan led 19-14. Stevens, drinking Captain Morgan’s and Diet Coke, raised his arms and cheered with every Michigan made shot and every Villanova miss. The $1 million was tantalizingly close just midway through the first half.

But then the game started to get away from the Wolverines, and Stevens. Missed shot after missed shot. Enough bricks to build Stevens a new casino.

“Get down,” he yelled at the TV. “There’s a lid on the basket.”

Villanova took the lead by a point. Then added a few more buckets.

Stevens, rubbing his hands together, grimaced.

“I felt better 10 minutes ago,” he said.


Miller, who had gone home to watch, let Aaron Kessler, assistant director of the Golden Nugget sports book, stick around to eyeball the developments.

Kessler, who had been watching the early Michigan lead warily, looked up at the television and let a slight smile break through his lips.

“I feel better than I did 10 minutes ago,” he said.

Stevens, who did his undergraduate work at Michigan, said he wanted his alma mater to win — but he wasn’t willing to risk a single all-or-nothing bet for a $1-million payout. Earlier in the afternoon, he went to the Four Queens Casino and laid down a $330,000 wager on Villanova. “An insurance bet,” he said.

The payout would be about $100,000. He said if he won the $1 million, he would pour it into his new development downtown related to the Golden Gate Casino. The smaller payout would be routed into that project as well, but Stevens was an optimist for the big money.

By halftime, however, the $1-million dream was on life support. Villanova held a 37-28 lead. Stevens left the bar and returned before the second-half tipoff wearing Wolverine colorsblue and gold overalls, the Michigan vest and a different Michigan hat.

Nicole Stevens noted the bartenders weren’t wearing Michigan necklaces like they had been for previous victories by the Wolverines. She pressed some money into the hand of an employee and ordered him to go to a kiosk on Fremont Street and buy some Michigan necklaces for the bartending crew.

“We all have to make adjustments at halftime,” Derek Stevens said.

But the adjustments were for naught.


Villanova took over in the second half. Nothing Stevens tried seemed to work. Not taking the glass case off the covered Pope Francis bobblehead and high-fiving him. Not pacing around the bar. Not changing out of the overalls midway through the second half. Not even positioning people at different spots around the bar, as if he were shifting to a zone defense against the forces of bad luck.

Nicole Stevens had left her seat at the bar and was sitting by a slot machine with a cigarette between her fingers. “I’m on my third outfit,” she lamented.

Kessler watched Villanova sink another three-pointer to increase the lead to 18 points.

“The dagger,” he said.

Derek Stevens walked up to his wife while other desperate fans began banging cups on the bar to try to rally the team.

“Mojo?” he asked. “Let’s take a walk.”

The two disappeared as the game continued to get out of hand for Michigan. Stevens said he could sense the $1 million slipping away at the start of the second half. He’d made a few other wagers on the second half and, as Michigan faded down the stretch, he said he would probably still come out ahead by about $31,000.

When the buzzer sounded and the game was over, Stevens smiled and laughed. He shook hands with Kessler, who said that the Stevens’ wager had made them sweat a bit.

Kessler said when Stevens proposed the wager, it had to be approved by the Golden Nugget’s owner, Tilman Fertitta. He said it took guts for the owner to accept Stevens’ wager.


“Looks like he made the right call,” Kessler said.

Stevens said he was disappointed Michigan didn’t pull off the victory, but also said he wasn’t beating himself over the wager.

When asked if he had any regrets, Stevens laughed.

“Yeah,” he said. “That I didn’t bet $3 million on Villanova.”

Twitter: @davemontero