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Internet Gambling

Why is Washington out to stop it?
Bruce Schoenfeld
From the Print Edition:
Gene Hackman, Sep/Oct 00

It was football season, and one west Texas gambler named Chris was bored. Other than the trips he made to the Las Vegas sports books once or twice a year, betting on games had become more frustrating than fun for this recreational gambler.

His bookie wasn't around when he needed him. Sometimes he wouldn't handle action on games Chris wanted. And Chris, who runs a sports memorabilia business from his home, always wondered what would happen if he hit big, like a five-figure score on a four-team parlay. Would he ever see his winnings? Whom could he complain to if he didn't?

He'd heard about sports gambling sites on the World Wide Web, so he typed "sports" and "gambling" into his search engine. What he found was a virtual Strip of Web sites touting Las Vegas-style wagers and more. A list scrolled up his computer screen of sports books offering parlays, teasers, gimmick bets, tennis and golf tournaments, soccer, even odds on camel races.

One in particular intrigued him. It was called World Sports Exchange, and during certain events it operated like the stock market. You could buy stock in the Dallas Cowboys, for example, at $50 to win $100. As the game progressed, you could sell for a profit if the stock had gone up, buy more shares, even hedge your bet by buying the other side. "At any point in the game, you can buy shares on either team against the point spread for anywhere from $1 to $99 to win $100," Chris explains now. "That's what attracted me. Las Vegas doesn't have anything like that."

One Sunday evening, Chris turned on his television and his computer and settled in to watch New Orleans play Chicago. "The kind of game you couldn't possibly be interested in if you weren't betting," he says. The Saints were giving three and a half points, meaning they had to win by four to cover the point spread. Considering that unlikely, Chris invested $800 in the Bears, buying 20 shares at $40 each.

The game was stultifying. By the fourth quarter, with New Orleans ahead 10-6, television sets had been flipped off across America. Because Chris still held his shares, the game still held his interest. As the remaining minutes dwindled away, he watched his Bears move the ball into Saints territory and saw the price of a share move from $40 to $60. He could have sold for a tidy profit. He chose to wait.

The Bears scored a touchdown in the final minute. Chris cashed out at $87, making a profit of $47 times 20, or $940. But he wasn't finished. With only a few seconds remaining in the game, shares in the Saints had sunk to $10. Chris bought 20 on a lark. When the Saints returned the kickoff for a touchdown, the price shot to $100. Chris pocketed another $1,800. "All of that took 10 minutes," he says. "Ten of the most exciting minutes of my life."

Chris no longer uses his bookie. He also no longer makes his annual trip to Vegas. He wires money to World Sports Exchange at the start of the football season because it doesn't accept credit, and he attempts to keep it alive through the Super Bowl. Like many Internet gamblers, he requested payment shortly after his first win to make sure the virtual bookies were on the level. When the money arrived the following day, he sent it back to reestablish his account.

U.S. law enforcement officials are well aware of what gamblers like Chris are doing. Two years ago, the cofounder of World Sports Exchange, which has grown from 800 customers to more than 12,000 today, returned home to the United States from the Caribbean island of Antigua to face charges of violating the 1961 Interstate Wire Act by accepting sports bets over telephone lines. He was handcuffed, booked and fingerprinted.

In February, 32-year-old Jay Cohen was convicted, and faces a jail term of up to five years. Sentencing is pending.

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