It is difficult to outlaw certain unfair practices within the bookmaking profession, inasmuch as the whole profession is illegal. But if Congress won't forbid it, local bettors should perhaps stage a boycott to protest a horrible thing known as "pick minus one."
On Monday night, "pick minus one" was the instrument of a citywide disaster. While undergraduates and other purist fans will remember North Carolina's 63-62 victory over Georgetown for the high drama and the artistry on the court, gamblers will remember it as the night the bookies cleaned up. They were the only winners on the NCAA title game.
This, of course, is not the way sports gambling is supposed to work. Bookies are supposed to serve as middlemen of sorts, taking wagers on each side of a point spread. If they lose a $100 bet, they pay out $100, but if they win they collect $110 from the customer, and this differential compensates them for their services. Although there are many short-term risks involved in the business, very few bookmakers wind up in homes for the indigent.
In many parts of the country, the NCAA championship did prove to be a risky and costly event. New York bookies opened North Carolina as a 1 1/2-point favorite and were inundated by a flood of Georgetown money. To stem the tide, they lowered the spread to one point, which finally attracted some support for Carolina. When the Tar Heels won by one point, the bookies were, in the parlance of the trade, "sided." People who bet on Georgetown plus 1 1/2 won their bets, while the wagers on Carolina minus one were a "push"--no decision.
Bookies in Washington had no such travails. They were not going to put up North Carolina as a 1 1/2-point favorite, knowing that they would be swamped with Hoya money (as they had all through the playoffs.) A more reasonable price would have been pick 'em. But instead, most bookies made the game "pick minus one," meaning that a bettor had to lay one point no matter which team he took. He could have Georgetown minus one or Carolina minus one.
Because it is not at all uncommon for basketball games to end up with a one-point margin, this sort of wager puts the player at an enormous disadvantage, on top of the 11-to-10 odds he is laying. But, oddly, basketball bettors have traditionally accepted the practice.
"Players would not tolerate it in football," said Sneaky Pete, the bookmaker. "You put up pick minus one on a football game and there'd be rioting in the streets. They'd hang you, even though in football it wouldn't have much effect. We only use it in basketball. So any game where the spread should be pick 'em or one point we automatically make pick minus one.
Some casual bettors might not have contemplated all of the ramifications of pick minus one until James Worthy missed those two foul shots in the final seconds, and North Carolina's margin of victory became precisely one point. The large number of Georgetown bettors lost their money. But the people who put their money on Carolina merely had no decision. On an event that generated considerable action, the bookies who had the game at pick minus one didn't have to pay anybody.
"Pick minus one has been going on for as long as I can remember," Sneaky Pete said. "Whoever originated it had to be a genius. The bookmakers ought to erect a monument in town to him and go to genuflect once a year. He was a greater man than Jonas Salk."
The bettors who lost on the NCAA championship don't share this opinion. Sneaky Pete walked into a bar to collect from the losers and was met with a shower of epithets. "They were practically throwing things at me," he said.
One disgruntled customer tried to point out, rationally, that pick minus one had no place in an honorable bookie's operations; no professional bookmaker in Las Vegas would ever consider such a ripoff, knowing that customers would desert him overnight.
"In Vegas," Sneaky Pete responded, "bookmakers don't have to worry about having their doors broken down. They don't go to jail. They don't get stiffed by customers who can't pay. I think the bookmakers here are entitled to this little privilege."