Some men are born to gamble, although many of those same individuals might
bristle at such a term. “Gamble” tends to imply a reliance on blind luck, and
George E Smith (aka “Pittsburgh Phil”) was never one to worship at the altar of
fate. Instead, he combined an emotionless exterior with a calculating interior,
paying attention to even the slightest detail involving the world of horseracing
in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Over the course of his life, he became a multi-millionaire from betting on
horses. While his contemporaries enjoyed wine and women, Smith rejected such
diversions in favor of his one true passion. This allowed him to screen out all
possible distractions, and, in the process, redefine what it meant to be an
Birth, Childhood, and a Love for Gambling
George Elsworth Smith was born in 1862 in Sewickley, Pennsylvania. His mother
was an Irish immigrant, while his carpenter father had relocated from Germany.
In addition to George, the couple had a pair of daughters and a son.
Before George was a teenager, his father passed away unexpectedly. The
resulting financial difficulties led him to seek employment at a cork cutting
factory by the age of 12. He hated this work, but it did provide him with enough
money to help support his family.
After giving most of his pay to his mother, he also managed to save up enough
to purchase gamecocks and wager on baseball games at local pool halls. George
demonstrated a knack for gambling, and he explained his extra income as a result
of raises at the factory.
Smith placed his baseball wagers in Pittsburgh pool halls, and this brought
him into contact with horse races broadcast by telegraph. The descriptions of
the events were appealing to the young man, and he soon began keeping records of
the winning horses and their times. These formed the basis for his first racing
charts, and the meticulous nature required to compile this information would
serve Smith well for the rest of his life.
George E Smith placed his first horseracing wager in 1879. The race took
place at the Brighton Beach racetrack on Coney Island, and the bet was on a
horse named Gabriel at 5:1 odds. Despite having never seen an actual horse race,
Smith won and collected $38 (the equivalent of about $975 in modern currency).
Becoming a Professional Gambler
Convinced that betting on horses was a more lucrative prospect, Smith quit
his job at the cork factory. However, he hid this fact from his mother and
sisters, as they were decidedly anti-gambling. All of the proceeds from his new
career were stashed under his mattress, away from the prying eyes of his family.
Over the following two years, Smith earned more than $5,000 dollars by
wagering on the track (although he still did so through Pittsburgh-area pool
halls). His mother eventually discovered his secret, but the massive influx of
cash was enough to make her overlook any possible lapse of morality on the part
of her son.
Smith earned over $100,000 from his efforts by 1885, making him a well-known
figure in local gambling circles. This did have an unfortunate side effect,
however, as he could no longer get the same odds that were available when he was
a faceless member of the betting public.
Around this time, Smith’s sister Anne and her husband were killed by an
epidemic. George and his mother took on the responsibility of raising the
deceased woman’s two children, and nephew James Christian McGill would become a
lifelong friend and confidant.
The Birth of “Pittsburgh Phil”
1885 marked two important events for Smith. The first saw him finally witness
a live horse race, which took place at the Kentucky Derby. The second came when
he moved to Chicago, as he believed the betting prospects there were superior to
He looked for another pool hall to place his wagers, and he wound up at an
establishment owned by Civil War veteran William “Silver Bill” Riley. Since a
number of Smiths were already placing bets, Riley came up with a nickname to
distinguish his newest customer. Smith was dubbed “Pittsburgh Phil,” with the
former being his city of origin and the latter being short for “Philadelphia.”
And, thus, a legend was born.
It didn’t take long for Pittsburgh Phil to make his mark, and he was soon one
of the most successful gamblers in Chicago. His reputation once again made it
difficult to get decent odds, however, so he eventually moved to New York in
search of greener pastures.
He became so successful that bookmakers often refused to take his wagers,
forcing him to hire other individuals to place bets for him. This led to a
continual cat-and-mouse game between Smith, his representatives, and
spies/agents paid by both bookmakers and track owners.
In addition to betting on horses, Pittsburgh Phil eventually started buying
ponies under the banner of Pleasant Valley Stables. Two of his more successful
Thoroughbreds were Parvenu and King Cadmus, with the latter netting Smith
$195,000 from just a pair of wins.
He maintained relationships with a number of jockeys, but his favorites were
Tod Sloan and Skeets Martin. He worked with the former until 1897, while the
latter remained in his employ until heading to the English racetracks in 1899.
By 1902, Smith was using Willie Shaw as his primary jockey, although he was
also loaning him out to fellow racehorse owner James R. Keene. When Shaw lost a
string of races under supposedly suspicious conditions, Smith was accused of
paying the man to sandbag.
Pittsburgh Phil denied the claims, but Shaw was suspended in 1903. Later that
year, Smith was banned from entering his horses in any event overseen by The
He never admitted guilt, and many felt the entire matter was a scheme by the
Jockey Club to remove a major high roller from their tracks. By the end of 1903,
Smith sold his stable of horses to focus on more pressing matters.
Decline and Death
By the latter stages of 1903, Smith was making a number of trips to Hot
Springs, Arkansas and the Adirondacks. His family assumed that it was due to the
controversy with The Jockey Club, but a noticeable cough soon betrayed a more
In the summer of 1904, Pittsburgh Phil placed his final bet on a horse race
and won $2,000 in the process. Months later, he went to a sanitarium in
Asheville, North Carolina due to the worsening effects of tuberculosis. He would
die there on February 1st, 1905.
He was buried in Pittsburgh’s Union Dale Cemetery in a mausoleum constructed
seven years prior. Later, his mother had a statue of Pittsburgh Phil placed atop
the stone structure. Appropriately enough, this representation would depict him
holding a racing form.
Words of Wisdom from George E Smith
If you want to become a better gambler, especially as it applies to
sportsbetting, then you can certainly learn a thing or two from George E. Smith.
Of course, George is long dead, and he was also notoriously stingy when it came
to talking to the media, so all the following tips are all drawn from Edward
Cole’s book, Racing Maxims and Methods of Pittsburgh Phil. Each of the following
quotes is directly attributed to Smith.
“A man who has not an opinion of his own and the ability to stick to it
in the face of all kinds of arguments-and argument includes betting odds in
a race-has not one chance in a million to beat the races for any length of
“The bookmakers are not in the business for their health, and as soon as
they learn that certain persons fancy a certain horse and are betting upon
it, they shorten the odds upon that horse.”
“The smartest player does not know every horse that runs any more than
he bets on every race. He pays attention only to the better class of horses.
The others that win only once or twice a year, he dismisses from his
“All consistently successful players of horses are men of temperate
habits in life.”
“I have said that a player of the races must be philosophical. He must
not get upset by a series of winnings any more than by a succession of
losses. The minute a man loses his balance on the race track he is like a
horse that is trying to run away. He gets rattled.”
“The ‘clocker’ is something like the scout in the army. He is on the
battlefield hours before the main body arrives. He learns when a horse is
doing good work, when a horse is getting too much work, when he is sulking,
and that all helps.”
“The average bettor should always cut his wagers when running in a
losing streak and press them when luck favors him. Doubling bets when losing
is ruination to any person.”
“To get down to actual handicapping, you begin with the old fashioned
scale weight, wherein it is prescribed that horses of certain ages shall
give horses their junior so much weight at certain distances, and at
different seasons of the year.”
“During the running of the race my glasses never leave the horses
engaged. I see every move they make. I can see that this one is not in his
stride, or is running unnaturally, or is being ridden poorly. I can see if a
horse is sulking, what horse is fit, what horse is unfit.”
“Preparation for a day at the track begins the night before, of course,
for then the entries of the day are studied, impossibilities are eliminated,
and the contenders are decided upon.”
“One of the important rules of the men who win at the race track is that
they must have absolute freedom from distraction and interference of all
kinds. The successful race player knows there is a bar and a cafe at the
track, and that there are some very interesting conversationalists to be met
with every few steps, but he has no time for either the bar or the funny
“One thing can be depended upon positively-if there are two or three
very fast horses in a race, one or two of them will quit before the end of
the journey if the route is of reasonable length.”
“Financing your capital is one of the secrets of success on the track.
You must learn to know the value of your horse. There have been times when I
have bet twenty thousand dollars and at other times I hesitated about
betting one hundred dollars, although the figures might show that the two
horses were equally probable winners.”
“In my opinion the old-fashioned way of handicapping by comparison is
the best – which is to draw conclusions from weight and class standpoint,
time being a minor consideration.”
“It is impossible to overestimate the value of this ability to tell the
condition of a thoroughbred. It is the twin sister of handicapping and more
important. In that respect the ordinary form handicapper is, so to say,
handicapped. What may appear to be right on paper, very, very often is wrong
in the paddock.”
“You cannot be a successful horse player if you are going to get the
worst of the price all the time.”
“A man who wishes to be successful cannot divide his attentions between
horses and women. A man who accepts the responsibility of escorting a woman
to the race track, and of seeing that she is comfortably placed and
agreeably entertained, cannot keep his mind on his work before him…A
sensible woman understands this and cannot feel hurt at my words.”
“If a horse looks dull in the eye, dry, or moves and acts sluggishly, it
is to me almost a sure sign in the majority of cases that he is not at his
“The player has a great advantage over the official handicapper, for the
reason that he has the opportunity of considering the present condition of a
horse, when the handicapper must not let such a factor enter into his
calculations. When he starts his work, he bases his calculations on the best
performance of every entry, and to him all entries are supposed to be in the
best physical condition possible.”
“Nerves are as important to a horse in training as to a person engaged
in any physical contest. Poor nerves are indicated by “fretting,” and a
horse that frets is a very dangerous betting proposition.”
“There is something about a favorite that seems to sway players to bet
upon him. Their own judgment in many cases tells them that the horse in
question is in a false position, but they become afraid of themselves.”
“A good rider, a good horse, a good bet, was one of my mottoes.”
While the names George E Smith and Pittsburgh Phil are largely forgotten, his
success as a gambler cannot be underestimated. By the time of his death, he had
amassed a personal fortune of $3,250,000, which amounts to around $86,630,556 in
His analytical approach to betting was unheard of at the time, and most of
the strategies he described to Edward Cole in Racing Maxims and Methods of
Pittsburgh Phil remain sound. Not bad for a guy who used to hide his winnings
from his mother under a mattress.
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