legally bet­ting on elec­tions in u.s. would be lu­cra­tive, but it could cause trou­ble for al­ready-shady process

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BY ROB MIECH @rob­miech

LAS VE­GAS — Bored to tears dur­ing the coro­n­avirus lock­down, un­able to bet his beloved thor­ough­breds through in­ac­ces­si­ble techno-av­enues in Ne­vada, Larry Googled “elec­tion bet­ting” on his smart­phone.

MyBookie popped up. Voilà! Lured by the Bit­coin-friendly op­er­a­tion based in Costa Rica and the ex­otic — al­beit ver­boten in the United States — na­ture of his quest for elec­tion ac­tion, he fed $600 into a new ac­count, earn­ing a $600 bonus.

On May 27, Larry, a casino pal, bet on Cather­ine Cortez Masto, at 12-1 odds, to be­come Demo­cratic chal­lenger Joe Bi­den’s vice pres­i­den­tial run­ning mate. The next day, the Ne­vada sen­a­tor bowed out of con­tention.

Larry re­grouped, plunk­ing some crypto coin on Tammy Duckworth at 22-1. “Then she shot up to 50-1 odds,” he said of the Illi­nois sen­a­tor, “so what do I know?”

He dis­plays Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s re­elec­tion odds at mi­nus-120, a $120 risk to win $100. Bi­den is mi­nus-110. (Care for a Papal punt? U2 front man Bono is 500-1 to one day suc­ceed Francis in the Vat­i­can.)

The other Amer­i­can-soil elec­tion-wa­ger­ing op­tion is Un­cle Nate, il­licit book­ies who lurk in the shad­ows from Hobo­ken to Honolulu — per­haps even a back room or two on Wabash — for whom the prac­tice is a qua­dren­nial tra­di­tion.

New York al­ways has been a hot spot for such a flut­ter, where fa­mous odd­s­man Jimmy “The Greek” Sny­der made a wind­fall on long odds against Harry Tru­man in 1948 and hand­i­cap­per Tom Bar­ton cap­i­tal­ized on 6-1 un­der­dog Trump in 2016.

Guess what? Politi­cians indulge. In 2000, Amar­illo Slim, the leg­endary gam­bler who played poker with pres­i­dents, bet more than $500,000 back­ing Ge­orge W. Bush against a prom­i­nent Demo­crat, who had taken Al Gore at even stakes.

They met in Al­bu­querque, Slim wrote in his mem­oirs. They posted their loot in a bank. Florida for­tune dou­bled Slim’s money. He wrote, “I’d be the dirt­i­est son of a bitch in the world if I said who he was . . . . I don’t think his party or his peers would ap­pre­ci­ate this get­ting out. Who­ever said pres­i­den­tial his­tory was bor­ing?”

Un­til April 7, 2020, com­mon law in ev­ery state for­bade such be­hav­ior. Early that evening, though, a peb­ble pierced those long-placid wa­ters in West Vir­ginia when FanDuel Sports posted odds on the up­com­ing elec­tion — Trump as the mi­nus-110 fa­vorite, Bi­den at plus-125.

Alas, those tiny waves rip­pled for fewer than 15 min­utes be­fore those num­bers were re­moved. West Vir­ginia lot­tery di­rec­tor John My­ers apol­o­gized for hav­ing in­cor­rectly au-

tho­rized their re­lease.

Gov. Jim Jus­tice, whose fam­ily owns the fa­mous Green­brier Re­sort, which is a FanDuel part­ner, said, “Ab­so­lutely lu­di­crous. It’s hu­mor­ous, but it’s ridicu­lous.” Sec­re­tary of State Mac Warner said no­body should be bet­ting on pres­i­den­tial elec­tions, “in West Vir­ginia or any­where.”

Across the pond, such ban­ter is barmy. Betfair in Eng­land and Pad­dy­power in Ire­land have ex­ten­sive menus. Lad­brokes Coral has 50-1 odds on en­ter­tain­ment mogul Kanye West win­ning in 2024 and 200-1 on Face­book co-founder Mark Zucker­berg be­com­ing pres­i­dent.

Pro­fes­sional bet­tor Neil Chan­ning, a Bri­ton who has set po­lit­i­cal odds for sev­eral books, ex­pects the next U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion to triple the United King­dom bet­ting ac­tion of 2016, which set records.

Back here, West­gate Las Ve­gas Su­per­Book vice pres­i­dent Jay Korne­gay said elec­tion bet­ting in Ne­vada could be worth 10 to 15 times the han­dle of a typ­i­cal Su­per Bowl, which com­putes to be­tween $1.5 bil­lion and $2.25 bil­lion.

In one state.

“Look at other parts of the world that do al­low wagers on pres­i­den­tial elec­tions,” Korne­gay said. “It’s very, very pop­u­lar. Can you imag­ine, if it’s pop­u­lar over there, how pop­u­lar would it be here?”


Ne­vada’s sports­books have taken in about $150 mil­lion, the han­dle, in each of the NFL’s last three mar­quee games, mak­ing $1.875 bil­lion the av­er­age of Korne­gay’s pro­jected elec­tion han­dle.

At a quar­ter of a per­cent, the fed­eral tax on the state’s sports bet­ting, that’s an ex­tra $5 mil­lion to Un­cle Sam. To the Sil­ver State, at 6.75%, an ex­tra $127 mil­lion would be gen­er­ated. A rea­son­able sports­book profit, or hold, of 4% would pro­duce $75 mil­lion. Ev­ery four years.

“From peo­ple who have ac­tu­ally booked the elec­tion, those are the re­sults I’ve been in­formed of,” said Korne­gay, 56. “A lot of those guys who work [in Costa Rica and other off­shore venues] worked in Ve­gas. I’ve known them for years. They’ve told me, over time, the pop­u­lar­ity of the elec­tion.”

In the Prairie State, a Feb. 15, 1839, act made elec­tion wa­ger­ing il­le­gal. To­day, it’s pun­ish­able by a fine of up to $1,000 or a year in county jail, or both. In 1973, Ne­vada bumped its penalty to a gross mis­de­meanor, car­ry­ing a jail sen­tence of not more than a day less than a year and a fine of up to $2,000.

Richard “Tick” Segerblom, a Las Ve­gas Demo­crat and for­mer chair of the Ne­vada Se­nate’s Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, tried to eke a fed­eral-elec­tion wa­ger­ing bill through the 2013 Leg­is­la­ture. He told re­porters, “I’ve been fol­low­ing elec­tions and bet­ting in Lon­don, and they are mak­ing a for­tune. Why not do it here?”

It passed in the Se­nate but fiz­zled in the House. In May 2014, he tried to re­sus­ci­tate the bill for the 2015 Leg­is­la­ture, but it stalled be­fore a pre­lim­i­nary panel.

“This is a sore sub­ject with me be­cause Ne­vada has lost mil­lions,” Segerblom, 71, wrote in an email. “No one un­der­stands how im­por­tant bet­ting on elec­tions can be — espe­cially this year, with­out sports events.”

The coro­n­avirus shut down sports in midMarch, and they’ve only re­cently started re­turn­ing.

At the fed­eral level, the Com­modi­ties and Fu­tures Trad­ing Com­mis­sion (CFTC) might be an elec­tion-wa­ger­ing ob­sta­cle. It has al­lowed po­lit­i­cal fu­tures trad­ing in low-stakes, non­profit ed­u­ca­tional and research cir­cum­stances at the Univer­sity of Iowa and New Zealand’s Vic­to­ria Univer­sity, which op­er­ates Pre­dic­tIt in Washington, D.C.

Would a ju­ris­dic­tion nec­es­sar­ily ex­pect a joust with the CFTC if its statutes were al­tered, say, by a groundswel­l of sig­na­tures that get elec­tion wa­ger­ing onto a bal­lot, where­upon the peo­ple ap­prove it?

Said Jill R. Dor­son, deputy editor of bet­ting watch­dog Sport­sHan­ “I would as­sume that if a state le­gal­izes bet­ting on elec­tions, then it could move for­ward.”

New Jer­sey’s pro­tracted sports-bet­ting bat­tle re­sulted in the U.S. Supreme Court quash­ing the 26-year-old Pro­fes­sional and Am­a­teur Sports Pro­tec­tion Act (PASPA) in May 2018, shift­ing the le­gal-wa­ger­ing op­tion to each state.

Eighteen now have for­mal sports bet­ting, five are poised for launch­ing and 17 oth­ers are fash­ion­ing leg­is­la­tion. By the 2024 elec­tion, Korne­gay be­lieves up to 43 states could have le­gal sports wa­ger­ing.

States have been clear­ing their own paths. Ne­vada never has al­lowed bets on the Acad­emy Awards be­cause win­ners are known, in ad­vance, to at least a few peo­ple. But New

Jer­sey al­lowed it in 2019, and In­di­ana fol­lowed suit this year.

Maybe elec­tion wa­ger­ing will trace mar­i­juana’s scent? Il­le­gal at the fed­eral level, pot could be per­mis­si­ble, in some form, in 40 states by the end of 2020.

In Jan­uary 2014, Colorado be­came the first state to le­gal­ize recre­ational cannabis. Those sales were a record $1.75 bil­lion in 2019. In six cal­en­dar years, they’ve to­taled $7.8 bil­lion. That in­dus­try pro­vides 3% of The Cen­ten­nial State’s $30 bil­lion bud­get.

“I could see [elec­tion wa­ger­ing] go­ing down the same path,” said Korne­gay, a for­mer Air Force brat who calls Colorado his home state. “[With mar­i­juana], as soon as you got Colorado, oth­ers fol­lowed. A lot of ob­servers saw the tax dol­lars roll in. Oth­ers who were re­luc­tant to even en­ter­tain the idea couldn’t over­look the ben­e­fits.

“With all these dif­fer­ent ju­ris­dic­tions now ac­cept­ing sports bet­ting, some­body is go­ing to take the [elec­tion-bet­ting] lead, just like New Jer­sey did with sports wa­ger­ing, and fight for it. Oth­ers will be on their coat­tails.”


My first visit to Lon­don in May 1996 re­vealed the coun­try’s ob­ses­sion with a flut­ter — a bet, in Bri­tish par­lance. Out­side a shop, maybe Wil­liam Hill, a lit­tle side­walk A-framed black­board ad­ver­tised “Yes” and

“Look at other parts of the world that do al­low wagers on pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. It’s very, very pop­u­lar. Can you imag­ine, if it’s pop­u­lar over there, how pop­u­lar would it be here?” Jay Korne­gay, west­gate las ve­gas su­per­book vp

“No” odds, in chalk, on the city tem­per­a­ture hit­ting a cer­tain de­gree that sum­mer.

They don’t just yap about the weather in The Big Smoke.

Korne­gay heard about one pa­tron ask­ing a Bri­tish book for odds on Elvis Pres­ley re­turn­ing to be­come Prime Min­is­ter of Eng­land. They pro­duced a fig­ure, and the cus­tomer bet it.

“Wow,” Korne­gay said, laugh­ing. “They say our sys­tem is crazy, of­fer­ing [a prop bet on Ju­lian] Edel­man’s Su­per Bowl re­ceiv­ing yards to Phil Mick­el­son’s fourth-round golf score. That’s noth­ing com­pared to what those guys can do.”

Neil Chan­ning, the 52-year-old pro punter, wrote in an email from Lon­don, “We def­i­nitely are a na­tion of gam­blers.”

The Na­tional Lot­tery, he re­ported, is a TV event ev­ery Satur­day night. The an­nual Grand Na­tional is a fam­ily telly af­fair, too. Wrote Chan­ning, “Peo­ple who don’t usu­ally bet will have £1 on a horse with a nice name or colours.”

A Lad­brokes bro­ker told Busi­ness In­sider that any­one who placed a sin­gle pound on Le­ices­ter win­ning the English Premier­ship, Bri­tain vot­ing to leave the Euro­pean Union and Trump’s vic­tory, all in 2016, would have won £4.5 mil­lion.

The bonus? In Eng­land, un­like the States, le­gal wa­ger win­nings aren’t tax­able.

And even though a fixed-term par­lia­ment act was passed there 10 years ago, gen­eral elec­tions are not set in stone. The next one is sched­uled for 2024. Odds on it oc­cur­ring are mi­nus-200.

“Which shows how un­pre­dictable things are,” Chan­ning said. “It’s cur­rently the law that we have an elec­tion in 2024 and not be­fore, but this can be changed. And the mar­ket thinks it’s a one-in-three chance that some­thing weird will hap­pen to make that so.”

The U.K. is where Con­ner Streeter con­ducts most of his bet­ting busi­ness, but he is all over the globe. That is not his real name. He re­sides in Costa Rica or the Caribbean, pos­si­bly Bucharest or Bu­dapest. He never has di­vulged his res­i­dence to pro­tect me, he said, as much as him­self.

He is heav­ily in­volved in elec­tion bet­ting. To any­one who be­lieves the elec­tion process in the U.S. is eth­i­cal, above-board, a model of in­tegrity, he has some harsh news. He dis­misses a typ­i­cal thread that le­gal­ized elec­tion wa­ger­ing would sully the in­sti­tu­tion.

The in­sti­tu­tion, he in­sists, al­ready is un­clean.

“It would shine a light and ex­pose the fraud,” he wrote in a dense, two-part email. “That’s ex­actly why Democrats should not want it . . . the anom­alies would be glar­ing.”

As in, why num­bers in cer­tain coun­ties are so skewed, and how so many peo­ple are turn­ing out. “Sim­ple, be­cause they are cheat­ing,” Streeter said, “bussing peo­ple to polls, fill­ing out fake bal­lots, vot­ing for dead peo­ple, etc.”

For some, Illi­nois in 1960 al­ways will be a grand cu­rios­ity. Richard Nixon won 93 of 102 coun­ties. Of nearly 4.76 mil­lion to­tal votes, how­ever, John F. Kennedy won the state by fewer than 9,000. Illi­nois and Texas keyed JFK’s tri­umph.

Streeter cleaned up on Trump in 2016. Demo­cratic turnout, as he had pre­dicted via reams of ex­ca­vated data, slipped in cer­tain ar­eas from 2012.

For the 2018 midterms, he pored over num­bers from the pre­vi­ous four elec­tion cy­cles. He cap­i­tal­ized in two states and used words to de­scribe his beat­ing in two oth­ers — that would have pro­duced a six-fig­ure par­lay jack­pot, from a nom­i­nal in­vest­ment — that are un­fit for a fam­ily pub­li­ca­tion.

Streeter spec­i­fies states, ci­ties and coun­ties. In­con­sis­ten­cies are rife. He in­sists that bet­ting on pol­i­tics is not a fair fight.

“You are spec­u­lat­ing if cor­rup­tion has been con­tained or not,” Streeter said. “If you want to know the real num­bers, go to each state and down­load the num­bers and data.

Any smart gam­bler would re­al­ize where the [ex­ple­tive] is within a cou­ple of hours.

“It would be like the first-points prop in the Su­per Bowl to come by safety, and it hap­pens in five straight Su­per Bowls. It does not add up or make sense.”

He shared one state’s com­pre­hen­sive spread­sheet, com­par­ing its 2016 vot­ing fig­ures to 2018. They ap­pear to em­anate from dif­fer­ent hemi­spheres.

“That is eas­ily ma­nip­u­lated by rig­ging a hand­ful of the most pop­u­lous coun­ties. It’s a vast topic and all over the map . . . all roads lead back to a cor­rupted process. Any­one who says it isn’t is not un­bi­as­edly look­ing at the data.”


As Long Is­land hand­i­cap­per Tom Bar­ton does, Jimmy “the Greek” poked into cran­nies and crevices for in­for­ma­tion, fa­vor­ing the re­sults of his own leg­work, what his senses told him.

Both prof­ited, in the Em­pire State, on pres­i­den­tial up­sets.

Univer­sity of Michi­gan his­to­rian Paul Rhode claims the clan­des­tine mar­kets erred only once in hand­i­cap­ping a pres­i­den­tial out­come dur­ing a long hey­day from 1884 to 1940. Polls, pun­dits and pre­elec­tion odds, how­ever, have since been er­ratic barom­e­ters.

In 1948, Sny­der fa­mously took 10 grand to New York City, where of­fi­cial bet­ting com­mis­sion­ers would set up shop in the finer ho­tels and fi­nan­cial dis­trict. Their up­dated daily fig­ures made front-page head­lines.

He had asked nearly 2,000 women in his home­town of Steubenvil­le, Ohio, if they trusted a politi­cian with a mus­tache. At a 5-to-1 clip, they dis­sented. He bolted east to bet on Harry Tru­man to de­feat the heavy fa­vorite — but mus­ta­chioed — New York Gov. Thomas Dewey.

In an up­set for the ages, Tru­man won, 303 elec­toral votes to 189. At 17-1 odds, “the Greek” made $170,000, ap­prox­i­mately $1.8 mil­lion in to­day’s dol­lars. He likely knew ex­actly how Tru­man felt when he held the Chicago Daily Tri­bune’s in­fa­mous “Dewey De­feats Tru­man” head­line to the heav­ens.

Fifty-two years later, a re­lieved Amar­illo Slim would ref­er­ence that head­line af­ter his dra­matic score against an es­tab­lished politi­cian.

And 16 years af­ter that, Bar­ton and wife Abby, with their two young chil­dren, trekked west in a rented Mercedes-Benz S550 across the Rust Belt to visit her rel­a­tives in Chicago and Spring­field.

Upon re­turn­ing to New York, through the heart of In­di­ana, Ohio and Penn­syl­va­nia in June 2016, the sights shocked him.

“Trump sign af­ter Trump sign af­ter Trump sign,” Bar­ton said. “By me­dia re­ports, you would [have thought] Trump didn’t have a prayer, if you don’t get out that of­ten. I was in the mid­dle of the coun­try — In­di­ana farms, Penn­syl­va­nia farms — and didn’t see a sin­gle Hil­lary sign for 17 hours.”

Tom turned to Abby and said, “He’s gonna win this thing.”

Bar­ton, 43, is a sports-bet­ting reg­u­lar on sev­eral ra­dio cir­cuits. Once word spread about his elec­tion se­lec­tion, show re­quests piled up.

“I was brought on to be the hi­lar­i­ous let’s-laugh-at-the-Trump guy, to be mocked,” he said. “They were all laugh­ing and jok­ing, non­stop, be­cause I be­lieved [Trump] would win.”

In­stead, he laughed last. In an­other up­set for the ages, Trump won 304 elec­torals to 227; 270 claim the Oval Of­fice. Bar­ton had scat­tered about a grand, at cer­tain out­lets with $250 lim­its, on Trump at those 6-1 odds.

Bar­ton does not see red or blue — it’s about the green, in his grand scheme to sup­port his fam­ily.

“I don’t feel bad about bet­ting on a per­son who I know is go­ing to win even if I don’t like him or her. That doesn’t fac­tor in it with me,” he said. “I’ll al­ways take ad­van­tage of any an­gle I can get.”

He sym­pa­thizes with Streeter, to a point. “We know voter fraud hap­pens, and on a grand scale at times,” Bar­ton said. “I think, though, there is a dif­fer­ence be­tween ‘tainted’ and ‘rigged.’ There is a large dif­fer­ence be­tween ‘tam­per­ing’ and ‘in­flu­enc­ing.’

“I worry that large-scale, un­lim­ited [le­gal] bet­ting would lean to­ward ‘tam­per­ing with’ in­stead of just ‘in­flu­enc­ing’ [elec­tions].”

He re­called a New York Times pre­elec­tion head­line that de­clared Clin­ton a 93% shoo-in to win and cringed.

“I stop my­self from even call­ing it bad jour­nal­ism. It isn’t jour­nal­ism,” he said. “Peo­ple will stay home be­cause of that piece. ‘I was go­ing to vote for this guy but, at 93% . . .’ Or, ‘I was go­ing to vote for Hil­lary, but she doesn’t need my vote. I’ll go to the movies in­stead.’ “Hor­ri­ble, hor­ri­ble, hor­ri­ble jour­nal­ism.” Bar­ton wends through dicey sce­nar­ios. With le­gal­iza­tion, where would it stop? The Se­nate and House? Gover­nors? County judge­ships? Sher­iff ?

He con­curs that politi­cos who call elec­tion wa­ger­ing lu­di­crous are the very peo­ple who would most ben­e­fit from it, with tax in­flux to stem bal­loon­ing bud­get deficits. He ad­mits, too, to fairly de­spis­ing that fac­tion.

“I think politi­cians, in gen­eral, are a shady bunch,” Bar­ton said. “It’s a shady pro­fes­sion, and I don’t want to add . . .”

This is no pass­ing topic, like the weather, to Bar­ton, who pos­sesses a Har­vard de­gree in his­tory with a par­tic­u­larly keen em­pha­sis on the Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion.

“It’s my busi­ness, and I think it’s too volatile, too many doors be­ing opened,” he said. “There’s a beauty to Amer­ica and the elec­tion process, and I don’t want to see it tar­nished.” ✶

“I worry that large-scale, un­lim­ited [le­gal] bet­ting would lean to­ward ‘tam­per­ing with’ in­stead of just ‘in­flu­enc­ing’ [elec­tions].” Tom Bar­ton


West­gate Las Ve­gas Su­per­book vice pres­i­dent Jay Korne­gay said elec­tion bet­ting would be hugely prof­itable.

Fa­mous odd­s­man Jimmy “the Greek” Sny­der made a wind­fall on long odds against Harry Tru­man in 1948. It was such an up­set that the Chicago Daily Tri­bune didn’t be­lieve it.

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