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Strange wagers

(Lukas Schulze/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

Sports

Strange wagers

As the coronavirus pandemic stifles the gambling industry, sports gamblers turn to more obscure competitions

In this dark age of the coronavirus, sports gamblers are left searching the ends of the earth for any sign of sports. Among the exotic offerings the pandemic has not canceled: soccer in Burundi and Belarus, basketball in Tajikistan, and professional darts. Yes, darts.

New Jersey sports columnist Steve Politi said he put $20 on a Russian table tennis match last week out of boredom and to scratch a gambling itch that March Madness would’ve normally scratched. After placing his bet online on a sport he knew little about, Politi spent the next hour on the edge of his couch watching his guy Oleg return smacks from Dmitry. “When you’re stuck indoors all day, you’ll try anything to kill a little time,” he told me over email. 

Politi describes himself as an occasional gambler and says he knows his limits. But anti-addiction advocates and counselors predict problem gamblers will struggle during the coronavirus pandemic, when money is tight and obscure sports rule the day. 

Overall, the coronavirus pandemic has pounded the sports gambling industry, with states temporarily closing both casinos and brick-and-mortar sportsbooks to prevent virus spread. Gamblers can still place bets online, but states saw a steep drop in wagers: New Jersey sportsbook bets totaled $187 million in March, down from $372 million in March 2019.

When you’re stuck indoors all day, you’ll try anything to kill a little time.

Before the coronavirus canceled sports, sports betting itself was going viral across the United States. In the two years since the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on most sports betting, 19 states plus the District of Columbia have passed legislation allowing sportsbooks to take bets. (Additionally, Nevada, Oregon, and New Mexico already permitted the practice.) New Jersey, one of the early new adopters, has already collected $61 million in state taxes on $6.8 billion in sports bets. Keith Whyte, director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, says the last two years have been “the largest and widest expansion of gambling in our country’s history.” 

Thirteen more states had bills to legalize gambling in the works before the pandemic, but the coronavirus killed their momentum. Still, Whyte believes states will revisit the issue: Those that green-light sports betting before August could cash in on the most bet-on sport in America—NFL football. The American Gaming Association (AGA) estimated Americans spent $6.8 billion betting on the 2020 Super Bowl.

According to the AGA, the closure of the nation’s nearly 1,000 casinos (and related revenue losses to local restaurants, hotels, and businesses) will cost $43.5 billion in lost economic activity if they remain closed through May. While most of the gaming industry did qualify for relief under the $2 trillion CARES Act, it’s anybody’s guess whether gamblers will bring their own stimulus checks to the card tables.

The prospect of betting on virtual horse racing and Taiwan-based basketball will probably deter most, but Whyte says seriously addicted sports gamblers will still take the risk. Alone at home with a fast internet connection (and no Gamblers Anonymous meetings to attend), they’re the ones placing bets on sports they know nothing about.

And in a fast-paced sport, betting can be a wild affair: A table tennis game can last as little as one to three minutes, and individual points take four to eight seconds. That means gamblers may barely even be thinking (or blinking) between bets.

Sports columnist Politi learned this the hard way. After the victorious Oleg made Politi a richer man, he didn’t think twice about applying his winnings to another Russian table tennis match. This time, he lost.

He says it was fun while it lasted, but, “I think I’m probably done with the pingpong.