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Pope Pick Fair Game for Gamblers

Internet Bettors Wager on New Pontiff, Name He'll Use

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 5, 2005; Page B01

All things considered, the people of Paddy Power have behaved, they believe, with great restraint.

At the risk of seeming indecorous, the large Irish betting company suspended its online pope proposition -- that is, betting on who will be the next pontiff -- for three whole days as millions of pilgrims began mourning the death of their Holy Father.

While gamblers around the world place wagers online, Richard Walpole bets in person on who will be the next pope at Paddy Power in Goatstown, Ireland. (John Cogill -- AP)

But now, the pope prop is back on.

"Our feeling is, we held off a few days, and now the cardinals themselves are convening in Rome," said Darren Haines, a spokesman for the company, referring to the church officials who will select the next pope. "The ball is rolling."

And so, in addition to wagering on the meaning of Britney Spears's bump, or the color of the bonus ball in the Irish National Lottery, gamblers around the world can log onto paddypower.com, click on the Novelties section and put their money on Dionigi Tettamanzi, who is rating 11 to 4 odds in the race for the papacy. Or they can take their chances on Father Dougal Maguire of Craggy Island, Ireland, a long shot at 1,000 to 1.

"We do it very much in the same way as a horse race," said Haines, explaining, carefully, how the odds are calculated. "Without sounding so callous, in a sense, we have contenders, and you very much rate the speculation on the contenders, very much by going on media reports in the religious press. . . . Our trading manager is very clued up on this, though she hasn't had divine intervention."

While bookmakers in Las Vegas and Atlantic City seem to have taken a pass on the pope prop -- "That wouldn't happen here," said Bob Ravasio, director of simulcast and Keno for Bally's, an Atlantic City casino. "We don't do any novelty" -- a handful of online betting companies have opened the books for business.

At Pinnaclesports.com, wagers are being placed on age and nationality, as well as the identity of the next pope. Because sports, even political ones, can be contentious, the site specifies that the winner will be "the man appearing at the central window of St. Peter's Bascilica accepting the call of 'Habemus Papam' after the balloting concludes."

At betfair.com, gamblers can click on "2012 Olympic Host," "American Idol 4" or, if they like, "the Papacy." And if they are unfamiliar with Godfried Danneels or Miloslav Vlk, they can simply click on the name and see each candidate's odds graphed over time in stock-chart fashion.

"The amount bet so far is 36,652 pounds," or about $68,744, said a customer service representative. "The favorite there is Tettamanzi, who I believe is from Italy."

While it might strike some as unseemly, gambling is not exactly frowned upon by the Vatican. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, "games of chance or wagers are not in themselves contrary to justice."

"They become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others," reads the catechism, which was updated by Pope John Paul II. "The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute a grave matter, unless the damage inflicted is so slight that the one who suffers it cannot reasonably consider it significant."

Haines was not able to say how many people have placed bets on the next pope at paddypower.com, where bets also are being taken on the next pope's name. (John Paul leads at 7 to 4 odds; Blessed Innocent trails at 40 to 1; and Sixtus is a long shot at 66 to 1). Haines pointed out that picking the next pope has been a sport at Paddy Power betting parlors across Ireland and England for more than 10 years.

People make all sorts of long-term bets, apparently, such as on whether their children will play for a professional soccer team or whether Ireland will win the World Cup in 2006, and the pope question has been in that vein.

"The Olympics, the pope, those are things that are usually slow burners," Haines said matter-of-factly, although the papacy "is something that's gotten a lot of attention today, for obvious reasons."

He said there has been only one complaint to the company, perhaps because the gamblers know their catechism. "The fathers in Ireland are much like anyone in Ireland," Haines said. "They love a bet -- obviously on horses."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company