The wonders and dangers of online sports wagering.

The stadium scene.
Nov. 28 2007 7:08 AM

YouBet

The wonders and dangers of online sports wagering.

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The most clever innovation, however, is in-game gambling. No longer must you stop placing bets once the game begins. In-game wagering lends itself best to slower-paced sports like golf. When the action is much faster, the limits of technology get pushed to ridiculous proportions, with frantic players punching in frenzied bets that have more to do with market timing than sports. This can lead to some pretty bizarre happenstances. In British steeplechase racing, a well-backed horse will often enter the homestretch far clear of his rivals, with one final fence to jump before the finish line. Certain of victory, some bold (greedy?) in-game bettors will offer 1-to-1,000 odds against the horse winning—that's right, they will give you $1,000 if the near-cinch loses, provided you pony up a buck if it wins. About once a season, calamity strikes and the leading horse falls at the last hurdle, creating an absurd windfall for a handful of high-risk bettors, thoughts of suicide for the unlucky "layers," and copious amounts of free publicity for the exchanges when the results get widely reported in the betting-friendly British press.

For those who live in America, it's only possible to experience the thrills of the online gambling exchange vicariously. Except for licensed bookmakers in Nevada, sports gambling is illegal in the United States. While exchanges that match buyers and sellers of odds are not explicitly illicit, the wide-ranging U.S. Wire Act of 1961 has regularly been interpreted to prohibit the transfer of bet-related information via the phone and the Internet. The fate of online exchanges was sealed for good, seemingly, when Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act last year, requiring banks and credit-card companies to block transactions with online gambling sites. As a result, most reputable exchanges now refuse accounts from U.S. residents. (Only one exchange has attempted to set up shop on American soil. Last July, Betcha.com was shut down within five weeks by the Washington State Gambling Commission.)

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Betfair is no fly-by-night operation, and it continues to flourish in Europe. One major reason for its success is the company's willingness to share detailed records with professional sports organizations and the government if corruption is suspected. The exchange also operates an internal sleuthing squad to look for dubious patterns—when placing bets, customers are unidentified to one another, but their account information and IP addresses are known to Betfair. These practices exposed the tennis scandal, and Betfair also handed over evidence that led to the ongoing trial of a champion British jockey who allegedly held back horses at the behest of a betting syndicate. Here in America, where an estimated $200 billion in sports wagering takes place underground, such transparency is nonexistent. No black-market bookie, for instance, would ever alert the feds that he was seeing a suspect amount of action on games refereed by a particular NBA official.

If the United States loosened up its regulations, online exchanges would proliferate here. By creating a market-based framework for stateside sports betting, a chaotic gambling scene would, for once, have some order and credibility. Not to mention that the federal government would get a huge stream of taxable revenue currently controlled by organized crime. Just think of the bite we could take out of the national debt in a single weekend if we had legalized, online, in-game betting on NFL matchups.

T.D. Thornton is a Boston-based writer. He is the author of Not by a Long Shot—A Season at a Hard-Luck Horse Track.

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