Bribing Conrose in Summer

You can’t play basketball with broken fingers…


I caught a few minutes of  The Sopranos the other day. The rotund Bobby Bacala made casual mention of how the recently deceased New York boss Carmine Lupertazzi “invented point shaving.” I knew that point shaving was something related to match fixing, but other than that I was clueless, so I looked it up.

When two teams are matched in a sport’s book, the odds on favourite is assigned a number of points they must win by. That statistic is called the spread. So, if The Boston Celtics stand to beat The LA Lakers, and the spread is 10, the Celtics have to win by at least 11 points in order to ‘beat the spread.’ So, if you place a bet on Celtics, they must not only the win the game, they must beat the spread for you to collect.

Points shaving is the act of manipulating the outcome of a game by the participants (and often backed by the Mob). Normally, this translates to the odds on favourite intentionally committing errors resulting in either the loss of the game, or failing to cover the spread. Basketball is particularity prone to this sort of manipulation, for it only takes two or three dishonest starting players to control the fate of their team – and it is very hard to detect.

Henry Hill (yes, that Henry Hill, from Goodfellas) wrote a fascinating, if grammatically suspicious, piece for Sports Illustrated on the 1978-79 Boston College points shaving scandal he perpetrated with James Burke (yes, De Niro’s character from Goodfellas). As an aside, why those events were not portrayed in the film is at least somewhat surprising. An elaborate plot to fix games, big money won and lost, fresh faced but cynical athletes who know they are never going to make it to the NBA, and all happening within days of the Lufthansa Heist. I suppose one must pick and choose.

A problem to solve when fixing games is how to bet large amounts of money without raising suspicion. Bookies can’t normally accept very large bets or too many small bets on single games (if they do, they will normally “lay off” some part of the wager(s) with another bookie, hence limiting risk). If betting patterns indicate an abnormal spike in wagering (especially against a favourite) the mobsters will have tipped their hand – the fix is in. The way the mob solves this, is to make very many small wagers with very many bookies across a very large geographical area, thus making it very difficult to detect the hanky panky.

The Point

Apple pie Christian family values America is a fantasy, and yet that ideal still holds great sway in both the political arena and the cultural discussion. The attitude to sports gambling is a case in point. According to a 1999 Gambling Impact Study, $2.5 billion a year is wagered legally on sports in Las Vegas casinos. Compare that to the $380 billion wagered illegally on sports across The United States, and the economic reality becomes clear. The argument to legalize sports gambling and collect the considerable taxation revenue, for gambling that will and does happen with or without government sanction, is only countered by very tenuous slippery slope arguments – impossible to prove, and rarely persuasive regardless of the context.

Fascinating is the disconnect between the idealized American and the actual American. Not so much for the Americans’ failure to live up to an unattainable ideal, but for the importance placed on the ideal. Americans would prefer a $380 billion dollar a year industry go unchecked and mob run, then to publicly acknowledge that Americans, including the average Joe with a job and a mortgage, like to put a few dollars on a game now and then.

Blame Jesus. Whether you are a biblical literalist or a wet behind the ears Christian liberal, Jesus Christ plays a role model. Even within Christian scholarship, the way to cope with the Old Testament sewn into the same leaves as The Sermon on the Mount, is to read the bible “Always with Jesus in mind.” If Jesus would have approved, then it is okay. If he wouldn’t, then it isn’t. This also serves to combat accusations of cherry picking (unsuccessfully in my mind, but that’s another topic).

Religion informs American values like no other culprit, and Jesus Christ is their number one dude. Jesus would never bet on a Knicks game, therefore, for the government to condone such a thing would be a gross transgression of values (won’t someone please think of the children!). That might seem like an oversimplification, that I am ignoring the social impact of gambling, that serious and secular arguments against legalized gambling can be made. Secular arguments against gambling are beside the point, for no secular person argues that the very act of gambling is amoral. That argument can only be made by the religious.

In conclusion, if it is political suicide for a politician to get up and say: “Let’s legislate away a $380 billion a year industry from organized crime, regulate it, make it safe, and add to the public coffer,” then we need an explanation as to why. My guess: it is the notion of the idealized American cloaked in a blanket of religiously informed values. How pathetic.

Robin Lindsay



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