Against All Odds
“The safest way to double your money is to fold over once and put it in your pocket.” (Kin Hubbard)
Ah, truer words have never been written and definitely did not originate from a gambler. For the gambler, it is more about the euphoria of winning when the odds are high or stacked against you. It is the ‘rush’- the excitement and angst that live in your gut when you are betting money you cannot afford to bet, but the payout and chance to ‘get square’ outweigh everything rational and logical that you know. Years ago, golfer Lee Trevino was asked if he felt pressure on making a putt during the Senior Skins match worth $100,000. He said “You don’t know what pressure is until you’ve played for $5 a hole with only $2 in your pocket.” Although Trevino has never been identified as a problem gambler, he definitely has the mentality and thought-process of a gambler.
On Christmas Day of 2014, the remake of The Gambler with Mark Wahlberg was released 40 years after the original version starring James Caan. Both movies follow a similar track- a college professor who likes to gamble, gambles beyond his means and requires a bailout from his mother, and in both movies, he has to convince one of his students (a star basketball player) to do whatever possible so that the team does not win by more than 7 points. Both versions of the movie show the escalation and riskiness of the protagonist chasing their bets, the threats of their bookies as they continue to dig deeper holes for themselves, and the anxiety of finding the money to place their next bet. As a recovering compulsive gambler viewing both these movies, the biggest difference that I noted was that in the orginal, Caan appears to have no remorse and no desire to quit digging his hole; whereas, Wahlberg at least appears to be seeking redemption and to change his gambling ways. The same week that I watched both of these movies, I also watched “Owning Mahowny” (2003) with Philip Seymour Hoffman, based on a true story of a Canadian banker. Although he was not a sports gambler, he was nicknamed “Iceman” and once he started manipulating funds at the bank, he began to escalate the amount of money he would then take to Atlantic City. All told, he ended up embezzling over 10.2 million dollars and, when taken into custody, he appeared stunned and in denial that he had done anything wrong.
Why do I bring up these movies? Yesterday was one of the biggest betting days in sports as Superbowl XLIX took place in Phoenix, Arizona and more people bet on this event than any other sporting event in the United States. It is expected that over $100 million dollars in bets were legally bet, although some sources state that closer to $3.8 billion dollars were bet illegally. The match between the Patriots and the Seahawks was expected to be so close that many of the sportsbooks had no favorite or underdog. One of the other crazy aspects to this annual event are the numerous proposition bets that can be made: Will Katy Perry show cleavage during the halftime show? Will the total goals of the Handball tournament final of Qatar versus France beat total yards by Seahawks’ receiver, Doug Baldwin? Will one team score 3 consecutive times? Although Nevada sport books can only take proposition bets based on what takes place on the playing field and can be verified in the box score, there are numerous online offshore books offering exotic wagers. If however, one does not live where they have access to legal means to place a bet, as depicted in the movie The Gambler, there are always bookies around to take your money. In July of 2014, the FBI raided several high-roller suites at a Las Vegas Casino based on information gathered using a ruse as repairman when the Internet access was shut down for those suites. Upon entering the suites they found evidence of a large Internet gambling operation, thought to have taken in over $13 million in illegal bets. Wei Seng “Paul” Phua and his son, Darren had also been alleged to have been involved in illegal betting related to last year’s World Cup Soccer matches.
There is no question that there is big money associated with sports betting and the history of sports betting can be dated back to the Romans wagering on the outcome of battles waged by gladiators in the Colosseum. Italians were known to bet on ‘bocce’ ball matches and the Greeks bet on athletes competing in the original version of the Olympic games. One of the more unusual forms of betting originated with the English and involved betting on how much time was required to “walk, run or hop a given distance and as bets got bigger, the distances got greater” (referred to as ‘pedestrianism’ and popular in the 18th and 19th century). Interestingly enough, this form of wagering was the basis of Jules Verne’s famous novel that came out in 1872 called “Around the World in 80 Days”. Finally, one last anecdote related to betting on unusual activities originates back to the Renaissance period and required, not only physical prowess of the participants, but a high tolerance of pain. It was called ‘shin kicking’ and each participant would kick the other until one gave in (some might say this was the precursor to UFC fighting).