Election wagering traces to the 1500s, a century in which zealous Italians risked florins and lira on 17 papal elections.
In the United States, betting has been synonymous with elections since George Washington’s triumph in 1789. “All voting is a sort of gaming,” wrote Henry David Thoreau, “and betting naturally accompanies it.”
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Which they could confirm at the Curb Exchange in Manhattan, the American Stock Exchange’s informal predecessor, where early last century election wagering sometimes exceeded daily trading in stocks and bonds.
It hit an early-era peak in 1916, when the equivalent of $240 million in today’s dollars was bet on incumbent Woodrow Wilson’s presidential joust with Charles Hughes. Boxing promoter Tex Rickard was the front man for an Ohio group which posted $60,000 ($1.43 million today) on Wilson, the winner by a sliver.
New York City was the place to bet, albeit illegally, since state laws have long forbidden election wagering. So Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder bolted there in 1948. Harry Truman had the office, challenger Thomas Dewey had the mustache.
Snyder asked 1,900 women in his hometown of Steubenville, Ohio, if they trusted a hair-lipped politico, and it was 6-1 against. So the Greek hit New York City with $10,000, which became $170,000 ($1.8 million today) when Truman won, to forever shame the Chicago Daily Tribune’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline.
In 2000, famous gambler Amarillo Slim went to Albuquerque to bet a prominent Democrat. Both posted more than half a million bucks — Slim on Republican victor George W. Bush, his foe on Democrat Al Gore. Slim wrote in his 2003 biography that he’d be the dirtiest son-of-a-(bleep) if he identified his opponent.
“I don’t think his party or his peers would appreciate this getting out,” penned Slim, who died in 2012. “Whoever said presidential history was boring?”