Now, he is silent. After two-plus hours of telling stories that seem torn from an Elmore Leonard novel, Stelios “Steve” Maltepes stares straight ahead inside an under-construction three-bedroom apartment in Brewerytown. Every question to this point has elicited an expansive answer that introduces a colorful lineup of hustlers, rakes, criminals and sundry characters. (Murderous Mexican drug lord El Chapo makes an appearance.) But this query stumps him. Finally, in a soft but firm voice, he reveals what he wants for himself in 10 years.
“I just want to be alive,” he says.
For most 47-year-olds, that would be a pretty unusual statement. But for Maltepes, the sentiment is understandable. Today, he’s best known as “the Philly Godfather,” a moniker he’s used over the past several years as he’s become one of America’s most successful sports handicapping experts. His daily picks on pro and college sports have earned him a nationwide following, including close to 1,000 subscribers to his website (who pay from $150 to $1,200 per month for his advice), more than 20,000 followers on Twitter, and untold sports junkies who catch his frequent appearances on sports talk-radio stations across the country.
“We will get 50 to 60 tweets before the NCAA tournament asking, ‘When is the Godfather coming on?’” says David Kaplan, who hosts a radio show on ESPN 1000 in Chicago.
Ask an ordinary gambler why he bet on a certain baseball game, and he might mention a hot pitcher. Ask Maltepes, and he could bring up that day’s dew point and how it impacts the flight of the ball. Information, he says, is the difference between winning and losing, and Maltepes claims he gets better data than anybody else: stats, weather, injury reports, big plays by other gamblers that move betting lines. He’ll bet anything — from Super Bowl propositions to NBA second-half point totals. And when the playoffs come, he really goes to work. “I’ll read 16 hours a day,” he says.
Maltepes bets every pick he gives out, and at least from the outside, it’s helped make him flush financially. He lives on an eight-acre spread in Glassboro, has invested in houses in Philadelphia, and inherited one in Greece. The Brewerytown apartment he’s in today? It’s part of his budding career as a real estate developer.
What’s fascinating, though, is that Maltepes’s rise to hotshot gambling expert just might be the least interesting part of his story. If the tales he tells are true — and to be sure, not all of them are verifiable — it’s a wonder some Hollywood studio hasn’t already optioned his life story. He’s spent decades living in a pulp-fiction world filled with scrapes, thugs, drugs and money.
As Maltepes says, “If I didn’t have good instincts, I’d be dead.”
Maltepes’s story begins the way you might expect: with a tough-guy father. Theofanis Maltepes had canned-ham-size hands, a relentless drive, and one helluva temper. “If you had my dad on your side, there was no reason to be afraid,” his son says. In 1969, Theo and his wife, Maria, moved to the United States from Kontariotissa, a village near Mount Olympus, the mythic home of Greek gods. They settled in a basement on Wellington Road in Upper Darby. Theo got a job as a dishwasher, making $90 a week, and Maria was a seamstress. About 10 years later, Theo bought a hot-dog truck, set up in Philadelphia, and eventually expanded to four trucks. “If you were on time with my dad, you were late,” Maltepes says. “He had an intense work ethic.”
Steve wasn’t enamored of his father’s predawn-to-post-dusk lifestyle. Didn’t like school too much, either. At first, his interests were ordinary: basketball, then girls. But by the time he was a sophomore at Monsignor Bonner, it was all about money. And the streets had too much to offer. He dropped out in his sophomore year.
He began working at Drexel Hill Pizza but quickly found other ways to make cash. One night in the late ’80s, he was down on Delaware Avenue to catch the weekend drag races when a friend “handed me an eight-ball of coke and said, ‘Sell this little bag,’” Maltepes remembers. He did it in three minutes and made $200. So long, Drexel Hill Pizza.
Maltepes says he dealt blow for six months before an attack of conscience made him downshift to weed. He switched to dealing quarter pounds of pot before graduating to ever larger quantities. “I sold a pound in 10 minutes for $800 profit,” he says. “The next thing I knew, I was selling 10 pounds a week.”
He was 17 years old.
Maltepes had an apartment in West Philadelphia and an appetite for cash, which was readily available to someone with his hustler’s mentality. One day, his friend Rooster had a request: “Find me some bookmakers.”
When the Rooster came to Maltepes, he didn’t just want to gamble. He was trying to find people who could take bets for a guy named Billy Walters.
Thirty years ago, there were no computers to keep track of what was going on in Vegas and other betting outposts. When something big happened that might impact the game or move the betting line, only a select few people knew about it. Bill Walters, who rocketed from poverty in rural Kentucky to become a legendary gambler, was one of those people.
Because Walters was so well known at Vegas casinos and everywhere else where people could lay sports bets, he had to use surrogates. And since he bet so much money on his preferred games, there was no way any single person could handle that much action. So his “movers” were charged with betting for him and funneling the proceeds — minus a commission — back to the top. It was kind of like the gambling version of Amway.
Rooster, and eventually Maltepes, worked in a Delaware County office with a bunch of hustlers — guys named “Seal,” “Tiger” and “Sheep.” (Sheep, a.k.a. Jimmy “Baba” Battista, was a key figure in the NBA referees’ gambling scandal several years ago.) They waited for Billy Walters to call. Walters (who’s now doing time for insider stock trading) would identify a vulnerable betting line and ring the office “bat phone.” Within seconds, the movers were dialing local bookmakers to lay as many bets as they could for as much money as possible.
If the bets hit, the movers got 20 percent of the winnings, along with whatever they laid for themselves. “I was betting 20 dimes a game” — $20,000 — “for Billy and about 10 to 15 dimes for myself on the side,” Maltepes remembers.
Maltepes approaches life as a series of opportunities and is always trying to figure out another way to profit from it. Some ideas work, and some don’t. No matter what, he’s confident enough to believe his plays will succeed in the long run.
Maltepes made a bundle betting with and for Walters, but his biggest payoff was learning the value of information — how to get it, and what really mattered.
“I’ve never heard him use the word ‘gambling,’” says Brian McCafferty, a former sports agent who grew up in Philadelphia and met Maltepes in 2011. “He talks about probability.”
Maltepes says he spent four or five years working as a mover for Walters. But he also continued to sell weed, and by the mid-1990s, he was on his way to becoming a big-time dealer. In the early days, he says, he paid $1,200 per pound for his product, but he knew a woman — his wife’s cousin — who was dating the biggest dealer in the Philadelphia region, and the dealer started feeding Maltepes pot at just $800 per pound. At a street value of $1,500 per pound, that was a pretty nice profit. “I just wanted to make money,” Maltepes says. “You start making money, and you look around and … you start dreaming a little bit.”
Then, in the late 1990s, a friend introduced Maltepes to a connection in Arizona who could get him product for even less — $550 a pound — from Mexican wholesalers. And not just a hundred pounds at a time. This was a gateway to giant profits.
But as Maltepes tells it, his new source came with some hairy moments. One day, he says, he was in a car with a group of Mexican drug dealers, including a young Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman Loera. They were driving to a house in Arizona to pick up a large parcel of weed, and one of the men was particularly suspicious of Maltepes. “This guy kept asking me if I was a cop,” he says. “I thought they were going to kill me.”
They reached the house where Maltepes was due to pick up 120 pounds of smoke, and his Mexican interlocutor continued to inquire about his identity. Finally, Maltepes took out the money to pay for the stuff.
“I count money really fast, and the guy watched me and said, ‘He’s not a cop; he’s a banker!’” Maltepes says. Crisis averted.
The money dealing drugs was good, but transporting “the work,” as Maltepes calls it, via the Postal Service and UPS was labor-intensive — and dangerous. Eventually, Maltepes says, he got the idea to ship the marijuana in pallets of spring water — and he actually started a business that sold the stuff. He bought the water from a Canadian company, which bottled it in an Ontario town called The Blue Mountains. Maltepes claims to have had six salesmen selling Bleu Spring Water and says he actually had a sit-down with the Eagles to talk about a partnership, though a deal was never struck. “They wanted $250,000 for us to be the ‘Official Spring Water of the Philadelphia Eagles,’” he claims. (The Eagles didn’t respond to requests for comment.)
When it came to transporting the weed, Maltepes says he would put 25 pounds of it in each 2,000-pound pallet of water bottles and ship them back to Philadelphia. At 20 pallets per load, and with a street value of $1,000 per pound for the marijuana, each truck was worth about $500,000 — not including the water.
“If they didn’t lock me up, I would have been a billionaire,” Maltepes boasts. “I was going to make $5 million a month. In five years, that would have been $300 million. I would have invested it in real estate and been a billionaire.”
But they did lock him up, on April 15, 2005. Maltepes says he’d allowed a Jamaican woman called D — a friend of his wife’s aforementioned cousin’s boyfriend — to use a warehouse he’d opened in Arizona. “Biggest mistake of my life,” he says. D’s behavior — and that of her friends — sparked police interest and later surveillance. Eventually, the cops raided another warehouse Maltepes used and found more than 1,200 pounds of weed, worth more than $1.5 million on the street. Though Maltepes wasn’t inside, they connected him to the building and arrested him. He was convicted of conspiracy to possess marijuana for sale and possession of marijuana for sale. He received two concurrent four-and-a-half-year sentences.
Maltepes says his stint in the Cheyenne prison in Yuma was the toughest part of his ordeal — and of course, it comes with its own colorful anecdote. “It was all murderers,” he says. One day while he was shadowboxing in the yard, Maltepes says, he received a visit from the head of the Aryan Brotherhood, the prison’s white supremacist gang, who didn’t like him talking to the Mexican and black inmates. But he told Maltepes he could continue his interracial fraternization — for a price.
“They wanted me to teach their ‘torpedoes’ how to box,” Maltepes says, referring to the Brotherhood’s thugs, who were charged with pummeling other inmates. Maltepes knew the fight game. He began boxing at 10, had some success in the ring as a teenager, and has trained fighters. He took the deal.
Maltepes eventually moved to a minimum-security facility in Kingman. He was inside for two years before being freed thanks to an appeal that revealed improper admittance of hearsay testimony. “When they opened that [prison] gate, it was such a weird feeling,” Maltepes says. “I could smell the flowers.”
Maltepes left jail on October 6, 2008, just six days before his 38th birthday. He was no longer in the weed business, but he wasn’t going to stop gambling. He was just too good at it. When Delaware Park started featuring football parlays in 2009, for instance, Maltepes and his pals used to clean up. The betting cards would come out on Wednesday, and by the time Maltepes would bet at the end of the week, some of the lines would have moved dramatically. Maltepes says the casino eventually figured out what they were doing and kicked them out.
In October 2012, Maltepes decided it was time to profit from his expertise in the mainstream. The Philly Godfather was born. His site offers a menagerie of picks — from him and other “animals” from the old Walters days, including Rooster, Seal and Tiger — videos, sports and gambling news, and betting lines. Although Maltepes admits his site could use some work, his customer base could expand dramatically now that the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a federal law that effectively banned sports gambling in most states.
Maltepes’s life doesn’t have cops-and-robbers drama these days, but he’s plenty busy. He landed a bit part in an upcoming movie. He has dreams of creating a “chocolate water” drink that would remove the carbs and sugar, include vitamins and nutrients, and taste just like Yoo-hoo. He’s also part of a group that’s trying to bring bare-knuckle fighting into the mainstream, and he’s had discussions with Orens Brothers Real Estate, a local development outfit, to pursue a mixed-use project at 19th and Callowhill streets that remains in the embryonic stages.
Despite years of dealing drugs and decades of working with bookmakers, Maltepes doesn’t consider himself a criminal. And his “business” pursuits are viewed much differently today. Marijuana is no longer considered the evil gateway to harder narcotics, and with a major prohibition on sports gambling being lifted, trying to gain an edge on local bookies might seem almost romantic.
The Godfather is active on social media and has done some entertaining podcasts with figures from his past, talking about their old gambling exploits. He doesn’t back away from anything he’s done and remains very much the street hustler who continues to look for an edge — albeit legally now. “I’m an average dude living an above-average life,” he says. And still beating the odds.
Published as “The Hustler” in the June 2018 of Philadelphia magazine.