Morality streak puts the high rollers undercover

Sports betting is illegal almost everywhere in America, and yet everyone seems to do it. Rupert Cornwell in Washington considers an issue that divides a nation
Click to follow
"You want to place a $10,000 bet on the Bears? Gimme a couple of minutes and I'll get back to you with the bookie's number."

Those words from a streetwise Chicago attorney sum up the truth about sports betting in a country where betting shops are unknown, in which gambling is technically illegal almost everywhere - but everyone (or almost everyone) seems to indulge.

Apart from Nevada, North America's mecca for punters of every variety, the only other state directly in the business is Oregon, which operates its own sports lottery. But does Las Vegas have a quasi-monopoly? Far from it. A phone call or two, a drink in the right bar, and the dedicated gambler can lay money on any sport, in any US city.

The police have more than enough real crime on their hands to worry about sports betting. And even if they did, it probably would not make much difference.

The turnover of this clandestine industry is colossal; educated guesses range from $50-$100 billion a year. The biggest single event on the gambler's calendar, the NFL's Super Bowl, alone is believed to attract $4-$5 billion of bets, only a quarter of which or so go through Las Vegas.

Take Chicago, the most sports-obsessed town in America. The attorney explains: "There are thousands of bars here, most of them operate "squares'' on football games, a kind of numbers game where you win if you have the number corresponding to the points scored in each quarter.

"For (Chicago) Bears games, the normal bet is $2 to win $100 or $200, for the Super Bowl maybe $5. Are the police going to bother with that?" Incidentally, highrollers at the Chicago Board of Trade are said to run their own Super Bowl game at $10,000 a square, making a pot of $1m. And as for the NFL, so for other sports.

But this is far from the whole story. The trade has its harmless celebrities like "Jimmy the Greek" Snyder, or a legendary Chicagoan counterpart known as "The Wizard of Odds." And then, the attorney continues, "there are the real guys, who operate by word of mouth, who don't get heard about because they don't want to be heard about. Only if they're mob-affiliated are the police going to come after them.''

Such, in a nutshell, is sports gambling in the US today, an iceberg of which the non-aficionado will only see the tiniest tip - the spreads and lines (the American form of odds-making designed to generate the maximum gambling interest) which newspapers publish on football, baseball, basketball and hockey games.

These "odds'', usually set in Las Vegas and not in themselves against the law, are the daily bible of sports gamblers. But undercover betting does not appear to breed undercover fixing. Chicago, of course, was the epicentre of arguably the biggest sporting fix in history, the throwing of the 1919 World Series by the "Black'' Sox who had taken bribes from a New York gambling syndicate. But since the war there has been not one serious documented case of fixing in the four major sports.

Self-policing is a prime reason. Tales of abuse of drugs, women and alcohol by famous sports stars are legion - but gambling, Heaven forfend!

This may be partly due to America's strange ambivalence towards betting. Along with the huge industry goes a contrasting moral streak that remains deeply suspicous about betting on a sports event, not least among some of the sportsmen themselves. At this year's Super Bowl, Bart Oates, of the San Francisco 49ers, said that if it were up to him all sports betting would be illegal, while his team-mate Harris Barton voiced the opinion that newspapers should not publish injury reports because "they were only for the oddsmakers, anyway".

The terror of American sport is a repeat of 1919. Consider the fate of Pete Rose, holder of baseball's record for the greatest number of career hits, but banned from the game and from certain Hall of Fame membership because he bet on sports, even on his own Cincinnati Reds (though with never a shred of evidence a game was thrown).

Considerations of image, not corruption, were why the NBA was so appalled at Michael Jordan's penchant for gambling, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars he reputedly lost at cards and to golf hustlers. The NBA's pressure was intense not so much because Jordan would get in so deep he could be forced to throw games (a man earning $35m a year can repay most gambling debts), but because his habit might tarnish basketball's reputation.

The above, of course, entirely omits boxing, almost universally assumed here to be completely crooked. Otherwise, in American sport, what you see is generally what you get. The mob's grip on gambling is far less than a few decades ago, and its attractions far smaller. Why should a baseball star making, say, $3m a year, risk everything to throw a game?

Nor have the bookies incentive to get too greedy. Once suspicion became widespread that games were rigged, no-one would ever place another bet.