Some men are bred to wager, although many of those men would be offended by the term. George E. Smith (also known as “Pittsburgh Phil”) was never one to venerate at the altar of chance, as the term “gamble” suggests. Instead, he combined a dispassionate exterior with a calculative interior, paying close attention to the smallest horseracing-related details in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Through wagering on horses over the span of his existence, he became a multimillionaire. While his contemporaries relished wine and women, Smith eschewed such diversions to pursue his one true passion. This enabled him to eliminate all possible distractions, redefining what it meant to be an analytical gambler.
Birth, Youth, and a Passion for Gambling
George Elsworth Smith was born in Pennsylvania’s Sewickley in 1862. His mother was an immigrant from Ireland, while his father was a German carpenter.
Along with George, the couple also had two daughters and a son.
Before George reached adolescence, his father died suddenly. Due to the ensuing financial difficulties, he sought employment at a cork-cutting factory at age 12. He despised this job, but it allowed him to maintain his family financially.
After giving his mother the majority of his earnings, he was able to save enough money to purchase gamecocks and wager on baseball games at local pool halls. George displayed a talent for wagering, and he explained his increased income as a consequence of factory raises.
Smith deposited his baseball wagers in Pittsburgh billiard halls, which introduced him to telegraph-broadcast horse races. The descriptions of the events piqued the young man’s interest, and he quickly began keeping track of the winning horses’ times. This information served as the foundation for Smith’s first racing statistics, and the meticulous nature required to compile it would serve him well for the remainder of his life.
In 1879, George E. Smith placed his first wager on a horse race. The race was held at the Brighton Beach racetrack in Coney Island, and the wager was placed on a horse named Gabriel with odds of 5:1. Smith won $38 (approximately $975 in present-day currency) despite never having witnessed a genuine horse race.
Becoming a Gambler Professional
Smith left his work at the cork factory upon concluding that wagering on horses would be more profitable. However, he concealed this information from his mother and sisters, who were staunchly opposed to wagering. All of his new career’s earnings were hidden under his mattress, away from his family’s inquisitive eyes.
Over the next two years, Smith earned over $5,000 by wagering on the track (although he continued to do so in billiard venues in the Pittsburgh area). His mother eventually discovered his secret, but the enormous influx of cash was sufficient for her to disregard any potential moral lapses on his part.
By 1885, Smith was a well-known figure in local wagering circles, having earned over $100,000 from his endeavors. This had the regrettable consequence that he could no longer obtain the same odds as when he was an anonymous member of the wagering public.
During this time period, Smith’s sister Anne and her spouse perished in an epidemic. George and his mother raised the deceased woman’s two children, and James Christian McGill became an enduring friend and confidant.