Monday, January 5, 2009


In a few weeks billions of dollars will be bet – some legally, some not – on a single sports event, the Super Bowl. This football game is the crown jewel of the sports betting industry. It generates more action – the largest amount wagered – than anything people bet on all year. The enormous amount of money bet on this one football game is testimony to the long history of gambling by human beings. Among the basic drives in life… food, clothing, shelter, sex and television… gambling is as strong as any.

The oldest gambling paraphernalia, a pair of dice-like gizmos, date back some 40,000 years. “So easy, even a caveman can do it.” Every civilization ever studied shows signs of gambling, games of chance, lotteries and other forms of social wagering. The ancient Chinese, the Egyptians, the Greeks… they all gambled. The Roman soldiers who put Jesus up on the cross were said to have gambled over his clothing.

In more recent times, in the year 1020, the Kings of Sweden and Norway (both named Olaf) actually rolled dice to settle a dispute over a land area known as Hising. Both Kings are said to have rolled double-sixes on their first try and then, when one King tossed another double sixes, the other was instantly declared the winning Olaf when his dice came up a six and a one. Thus, the derivation of the winning roll - seven. Here we are, nearly a thousand years later and I’m sure, somewhere, right now, somebody is rolling a seven and reaching out to collect his winnings!

People will bet on practically anything. Make a statement; chances are somebody will challenge you to back it up with a bet. In England, during the middle ages, gambling was already a national obsession. Historical records show that in the 14th century, when Henry VIII put Anne Boleyn on trial for her head, the public made the lovely, albeit ill-fated Anne a 10-1 choice for acquittal. Imagine the shock. I’m sure that wasn’t the first time the public guessed wrong and was cleaned out by the bookmakers, beaten into the ground by the odds makers, and it certainly wasn’t the last time. The whole history of betting is the story of short-term wins followed by long-term loses. Who do you think pays for all those billion-dollar hotels in Las Vegas?

While an early form of playing cards first appeared in 11th century Turkistan, they were developed into today’s style 200 years later in France. Blackjack became a French favorite in the late 1700s and the game of roulette was also created in France around the time of the French Revolution. Each has done quite well, thank you – for the house, not for the player.

In America, lotteries were used to finance a major portion of our own Revolution and gambling, especially card playing, thrived throughout the expansion of the American territories during the 19th century.

Sports’ betting begins, of course, with horse racing. As long as men have tamed and ridden horses, there have been horse races and as long as there have been horse races, there has been betting on their outcome. In the early years of the 20th century, there were more than 300 horse tracks operating in the United States.

Betting on professional baseball began in the 1880s. It continues to this day despite various and frequent scandals involving fixed games and insiders who have been caught betting on games over which they exerted influence. The urge of the player cannot be repressed, even by the knowledge that the result might be manipulated. In the 1920s college football became a profitable betting enterprise and during the Depression college basketball also became a national betting favorite.

In 1931 the state of Nevada made gambling legal. Las Vegas is the result, or perhaps more accurately, the cause. But, sports betting did not take hold in Las Vegas for another 45 years. Then, in 1976, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, the inspiration for the Robert DiNiro character in the movie “Casino,” almost single-handedly invented casino-based sports gambling. Rosenthal opened the first modern sportsbook at the Stardust Hotel. Papa was there, back then. Free drinks, too! It’s been nothing but continuous, unlimited growth since.

The “house” soon developed 2 strategies to insure for themselves a stable profit base. First, they introduced the point spread. It was no longer enough just to pick the winner of a game, the bettor had to correctly gage the minimum number of points by which the winning team would prevail. This alone eliminated the possibility that the house might take a catastrophic loss on a single game. It worked and it’s still working.

Second, the house added what is called the 11/10 "vig," which means a losing bet pays an eleventh dollar for every $10 wagered. This extra, or “vig” goes straight to the house. This system requires that a sports bettor must win 52.38% of his bets in order to break even. Thus, if a bettor makes 100 bets, each of an equal amount, he has to win 53 of them or he is a loser. When you have millions of bettors making hundreds of millions of bets, this slight advantage for the house is enough to guarantee enormous profits. Actually, the house doesn’t much care who wins what. The “vig” is plenty, and besides, most betters bet wrong.

Now, with the advent of the Internet, we have added online betting to the mix. Gamblers can place their wagers online – and offshore – with instant payoffs either deducted from or added to their credit card or cash account. No one really knows how much money is bet on sporting events in the United States every year, but most estimates, including casino wagers and online bets, exceed $100 billion. There is still an underground, illegal sports betting market, especially for the high rollers. Most casinos in Las Vegas have a maximum of $100,000 per bet on a sports event. Caesar’s Palace will take up to $300,000, but that’s the highest. So, where does the really big-time bettor go for really big-money action? Where there’s a market, there’s a vendor, somewhere offering the opportunity.

How many Americans bet on organized sports? Too many to count. Do you include the office pools on something like college basketball’s “March Madness?” Why do so many Americans bet on sports? That one’s easy. Everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks they “know” who will win this event or that event, this game or that game. Sports is one of those areas in life where so many think they have special knowledge. In reality, what they have is an opinion, a favorite, a preference, a rooting interest and a hope. But “special knowledge?” No, they don’t have any, because there isn’t any such thing. Of course, nobody wants to believe that. That’s why Lefty Rosenthal and all who have followed in his footsteps have made out like bandits.

Still, the opinions never die. The certainty with which so many people say – this game is a lock! – thrives and grows, despite losses and more losses. People have their dreams and their illusions. The bookmaker will never want for customers.

And… by the way, a my personal favor to you, Papa says take Oklahoma plus the points against the Florida Gators in the BCS Championship game. It’s a sure thing. Bet the mortgage – cash in your kids college fund – redeem your 401k – The Sooners will lead you to Easy Street! You wanna bet?

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