A gambling tale of two (Eastern) cities

Jan 7, 2003 4:19 AM

Those twin towers of American journalism, The New York Times and the Washington Post, offered commentaries on gambling last week, and they were as far apart as the two cities.

The Times, in one of its moralizing moods, savaged the subject. Its used its lead editorial to beseech "courageous leaders" to resist what it called "this destructive race to the bottom."

Las Vegans, who by that definition and their overall economy are bottom feeders, should find the editorial interesting.

The Times believes the source of the problem starts and ends with "pro-gambling lobbyists," who are making "alluring something-for-nothing sales pitches" to state governments facing the worst budgetary outlook in decades. The newspaper said states should know better, and realize gambling is "the fiscal equivalent of a comped buffet."

Las Vegas is the outstanding authority in America on comped buffets, but it also knows something else the Times conveniently overlooks.

Americans like to gamble.

If they did not, no amount of pro-gambling lobbyists could convince, or entice, or seduce, states into introducing gambling into their fiscal menus. If there were no demand for the product, there would be no point in trying to sell states on offering it.

The Times attack was reminiscent of those of the past on that other great evil of the Americas, drinking. And it is likely to have as much effect. It would be an interesting exercise for the Times to conduct a poll of its readers, or of the man-on-the-street it so often profiles, to see how many can identify Andrew Volstead.

It is unlikely the response would be productive, for Volstead disappeared into the void of oblivion and obscurity after his noble experiment, Prohibition, passed from the scene as one of the most dismally failed experiments in American government.

It failed because it ran counter to the wishes and desires of the people. And gambling is no different.

The Washington Post commentary was not moralistic, nor was it an editorial. It was a column by the newspaper’s noted racing writer, Andy Beyer, and it was titled "British Web Site Lets Gamblers Have It Their Way." It was a message Nevada gambling operators and regulators should heed.

Beyer started by writing that "A revolution has rocked gambling in Britain. So-called ”˜sports betting exchanges’ exemplified by a company called Betfair, have enthralled gamblers, giving them unprecedented opportunities, while generating fear and intense opposition from established bookmaking firms."

What Betfair does is act like e-Bay, applying that commercial approach to gambling. As Beyer describes it, it brings together two parties to make a transaction without having to pay the traditional middleman, in Betfair’s case bypassing bookmakers and racetracks and their high takeout. Betfair, Beyer says, matches bidders and takers to the tune of more than $10 million a day in bets. And it does it on almost any type of wagering proposition, from cricket to darts to elections and the Dow Jones average (up or down) to American football and racing.

In essence, the Betfair concept returns betting to its original format — transactions between individuals — using the most modern of communication tools, the Internet.

Beyer gives examples. A customer wants to lay odds of 15 to 1, up to $100, against Hillary Clinton being the next Democratic presidential candidate. Or he wants to bet $50 at 3 to 1 or greater that ”˜Gangs of New York’ will win the Golden Globe as best motion picture. Betfair’s computers make the offers, handling up to 12,000 transactions a minute, using customer deposits for paying off the action. It charges from 2% to 5% to do so, using the Las Vegas formula of measuring by the customer’s level of betting. And it uses to horse-racing channels as the vehicle of handling bets on American racing, with a price for betting and one for booking. You can lock in odds, and Beyer — who uses Betfair — said he got 8-to-1 on a horse that went off at 5-to-2 at Laurel.

Since skilled gamblers rarely miss opportunities, as U.S. and Canadian tracks have found out with their biggest bettors utilizing Caribbean- and European-based rebate shops Beyer says a typical U.S. horse race will produce $30,000 to $50,000 in matched bets on Betfair at the moment. The number is likely to grow, New York Times editorials notwithstanding.