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The Offshore Edge

Avid sports bettors look to offshore gambling sites for fast-paced, though unregulated, wagers with less risk and more reward
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Adrien Brody, September/October 2010

Any day of the week, any hour, really, you can be sure that the world's online sports betting sites are humming. No doubt, computers are tallying dollars, parsing risk and earning boatloads of profits. Estimated to be a $30-billion industry, offshore gambling operations generate action and commissions at a pace that Nevada casinos just can't match. Bets are placed over the phone and gamblers get routed via affiliates online and off, but mostly, money and positions pour in the new-fangled way: from the Internet.

It seems likely that Americans who utilize offshore sports betting sites are not breaking federal laws by wagering, though entities facilitating financial transactions and the books' directors appear to be another story. Legalities aside, betting online is generally a good thing for gamblers. But that doesn't necessarily make said gamblers comfortable about discussing their offshore activities. "Online is where it's at," acknowledges a professional bettor of basketball who's asked to remain unidentified. "The good deals [i.e., low commissions or vigorish] tend to be on the Internet and the weakest lines tend to be there as well. Everything is headed toward online. It's easier, it's faster, you don't need to dial a telephone number to make a bet."

Indeed for gamblers who fall within certain demographics, using a computer feels more natural than calling some guy and verbally negotiating a wager. More importantly, offshore books provide variety that just doesn't exist in Las Vegas or with your corner bookie. It's like shopping at Staples instead of a mom-and-pop stationary store.

To discuss this reality, I check in with single-monikered Edward, owner of a handicapping service called Right Angle Sports. With a documented win rate of 60 percent on college basketball totals (that is, betting on whether the total score will be above or below a certain number), Edward ranks among the sharpest of the sharp. He goes offshore for the same reason that a globe-trotting surfer would: a bigger and better selection of risks and thrills. "You find more options offshore, more opportunities to make half-time and total bets," says Edward, who specializes in those sorts of wagers. "The sites are willing to gamble more. They maintain higher volume and have more incentive to be customer friendly. In Vegas, most of the sports books are just amenities." As such, they aren't exactly enthusiastic about mixing it up with winners like Edward, on Edward's terms.

For many offshore gambling entities, sports betting is the raison d'être for being in business. Considering that offshore operators are naturally computer savvy, it's hardly surprising that the folks behind the sites would invest heavily in technology. That makes it easier for them to offer smorgasbords of proposition bets and even to provide continually changing lines once a sporting event is in progress. There are sites for peer-to-peer betting, which work as an exchange and facilitate wagers between individuals. Elsewhere, novelty lines get posted for betting on everything from the Academy Awards to who will win the World Series of Poker. Want to bet on who's going to score the next touchdown when the Giants vs. Dallas game is six minutes from completion? Get online and lay down a bet!

More surprising is how adroitly the newest software can interact with guys like Edward and also exploit them. To that end, rather than shunning the Edwards of this world (as Vegas sports books tend to do), some sites court him. While every sports book moves its lines based on incoming bets to reduce risk and exposure, the offshores go a step further. They use information gleaned from the plays of sharp bettors to take positions, manage risk and reap rewards.

As far as the owners of offshore books are concerned, their counterparts in Vegas are missing out on big opportunities. "Watch the line of a successful site and you'll see it make dramatic moves right before the start of a game," says one of the sharpies. "That's because their software is moving the number based not on the amount of money coming in but on the quality of bettor who's putting in the money. They go to 4 1/2 on a spread when the whole world is 5 1/2 and you know that they're taking a side. Usually it's because a winning bettor has made moves that influenced the offshore book."

This does not go unnoticed by some gamblers who earn money by betting sports without knowing the first thing about teams and stats. "Right around the tip-off of a basketball game, you can track the offshore lines and wait until some slip out of whack with what's being offered elsewhere on the Internet or in the casinos," says a card-counting blackjack pro who's profited handsomely by tracking offshore action. "Right there, you get a good indication of what the smart money is doing. Then, before the other sites have a chance to adjust, get your money in at the right price." He hesitates for a beat and brags, "In my life, I've never made a sports bet with my own information."

The edges, opportunities and conveniences that come with gambling online are nice, but there are downsides as well. As an example, Edward acknowledges that it can be inconvenient to collect winnings. Due to American banking regulations and legal issues designed to stop banks from processing gambling-site payments in the United States, retrieving hard-won dollars is rarely as easy as requesting an instant direct deposit into your account at Chase.

And it can be worse. Rather than getting paid slowly, you may not get paid at all. While Edward is sharp enough to avoid sites that have a high probability of failing-owing money and not being able to pay-he also makes it a point to keep from allowing greed to override common sense. Less seasoned sports bettors buy into financially impossible promotions and offerings of rock-bottom vig. Edward focuses on the bigger picture and sticks with reliable wagering outlets that charge reasonable fees.

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