March Madness strikes, bringing billions in legal, illegal bets

Correction
3/19/13 - The phone number for Arnie Wexler's hotline was incorrect. It is 1-888-LAST-BET.

It’s that time of year, America. Time to dive head-first into the office pool and mark those parlay cards while spending countless hours sneaking peeks at your favorite college basketball teams during the NCAA Tournament.

It’s March Madness, and so it’s time once again to guzzle from the keg of sports betting in a nation of hypocritical prohibitionists.

For the legal sports books of Las Vegas, March Madness is a hardwood Mardi Gras. While sharp bettors will move millions in the coming days, most of the players are giddy fans that bet with their hearts for the home team or their dear old alma mater.

For the legitimate side of the sports betting racket, it’s fat city and let the good times roll. But our sports books with their taxed handles can’t compete with all the other betting going on.

As long as no one is syndicating the action, those office pools are strictly amateur stuff. (Never mind that enormous sums are wagered a few bucks at a time.) The real money bet on the tournament is done so illegally. According to the FBI, March Madness generates approximately $2.5 billion in illegal gambling.

And that’s a tip for the valet compared with the estimated $380 billion a year that’s wagered illegally in the United States, according to the American Gaming Association.

While casino gaming continues to proliferate , and states double down on their “investment” in lotteries that enable the poor to gamble every time they go to the corner store for a loaf of bread, actual sports betting remains illegal outside Nevada. (I don’t consider other states’ parlay card programs competition.)

New Jersey, where children learn about point spreads before they memorize the alphabet, has tried for years to legalize sports betting. Gov. Chris Christie has endorsed it, and the state Legislature has passed enabling language. But the Department of Justice and professional sports leagues have lodged legal protests and have been granted a permanent injunction under the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act. (The 1992 federal law bans sports betting in all but four states, but Nevada is the only one with full game wagering.)

All this sports betting is against federal law, you know.

Even in Nevada, with its reputation as a neon oasis of legalized sports betting, the activity still attracts its share of agents linked to illegal bookies . Many of them are either connected to organized crime by choice, or entered into a marriage of necessity with knuckle-draggers in places as diverse as Queens and Phoenix.

Some of the offenses we see are prohibition-related. By their natures, illegal bookmaking and cash-intensive sports gambling violate state and federal laws. In recent years, much of law enforcement has given such statutes lower priorities.

That is, until the betting and bookmaking activity become too public, or a prosecutor gets the itch for career advancement.

As March Madness tips off, I am reminded of the straight talk of compulsive gambling expert Arnie Wexler, who has spent four decades trying to help bustout bettors salvage the lives and fortunes they’ve wasted with the bookmakers chasing that elusive big score.

Wexler’s hot line (1-888-LAST BET) is gearing up for the inevitable rush that comes after the championship game. While the winners celebrate, the losers call Arnie.

“You don’t get them now,” he says. “You get them after the Final Four.”

He helps some, loses most to the sizzle of the action. Generally an optimist — what recovering compulsive gambler isn’t?— these days Wexler laments, “We’ve made gambling glamorous. We’ve made gambling a household situation today. Now it’s like, ‘The family that gambles together, stays together.’ ”

But he knows a percentage of players who can’t control their sports betting will watch their families disintegrate.

And he also knows his cautionary tale now sounds corny and is easily drowned out every March by the deafening roar of the crowd.

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/Smith.