Haney's Handle: Why you can't bet on the Oscars in Vegas

Feb 8, 2012 |
For the longest time, the biggest misconception about Las Vegas gambling has been that visitors can bet on anything in the city’s sportsbooks.

News reports routinely, albeit erroneously, state that Nevada casinos accept wagers on events such as the Academy Awards, political races, dog shows and the like.

In fact, state gaming regulations long prohibited betting on any events besides sports.

In January 2011, however, officials changed the rules to allow casinos to accept wagers on non-sporting events under certain conditions.

From a bettor’s perspective, more than one full year later, this new approach has been a major disappointment.

Bettors in Nevada still cannot wager on the Oscars or other major awards in the arts and entertainment industry, on the Dow Jones or other aspects of the financial markets, on reality TV shows, on electoral candidates or on dog shows.

In the first half of the last decade, in what I fondly term “the NETeller days,” I recall betting on the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ monthly nonfarm payroll report. I certainly have not been able to do that in Nevada’s brick-and-mortar casinos.

Unfortunately, fans of novelty bets in Nevada in the past 12 months have had to make do with nothing more than a paltry selection of propositions linked to last year’s World Series of Poker.

Some of those poker props were mediocre: A few casinos offered a set of largely underwhelming odds on which of the players at the final table would go on to win the tournament, complete with a healthy (for the house, not so much for the bettor) built-in hold percentage.

A couple of them were fairly strong: One Las Vegas sportsbook created some interesting matchup props pitting groups of popular players against each other, asking bettors to choose who would survive longer in the tournament.

Others, though, were utterly pointless: The casino property that hosts the World Series of Poker, for example, hung a prop on whether the first flop at the final table would contain more black cards or more red cards. The line was -110 each way. Uh, gee, thanks, guys! That one must have required a lot of thought. Way to respect the art of bookmaking.

By contrast, at least one reputable Las Vegas book had the decency to price the Super Bowl coin flip at -101 each way.

The excuses — er, reasons —for Nevada’s lack of progress in this area have been generally lame, and have centered on a desire to avoid drawing the ire of national financial or political regulatory bureaucrats.

In a sensible world, of course, the rancid institutions of Wall Street and American politics would be ecstatic — not suspicious — about being associated with Nevada’s legal, well-regulated betting scene.

Heck, even the National Football League, which embraces gambling the way Malcolm McLaren embraced Tony Blair, conducts regular-season games in the sports betting-mad city of London.

Speaking of the United Kingdom, many overseas readers are probably watching with amusement as Nevada grapples with betting on non-sports contests. In a number of advanced countries, such wagering is not only accepted but part of the folklore.

Among many such tales is the story of a British punter named David Threlfall, who bet 10 English pounds with a London bookie in 1964 that man would walk on the moon at odds of 1,000 to 1. He collected five years later, winning the equivalent of $24,000 U.S. Sadly, he died when he crashed a sports car he bought with some of his winnings, according to an item in “The Independent.”

Even if Nevada gaming interests do get their act together on novelty bets, it’s unlikely we’ll see a return to the wild days of 30-plus years ago, when regulations in the state were notoriously lax. (I know, I know. Realistically that’s a positive development, all things considered.)

For instance, when the ill-fated space station Skylab was hurtling toward the Earth in 1979, one downtown Las Vegas casino was accepting wagers on where it would land. Australia (the eventual winner) was a 30-1 shot, the Pacific Ocean was short-priced chalk and so on. Gamblers looking to score on a long shot could bet that Skylab would land on the El Cortez, a downtown hotel-casino, at something like 25,000 to 1.

This prompted my all-time favorite gambling wisecrack: If you bet that Skylab would land on the El Cortez and instead it went on to fall on the Four Queens casino a few blocks away, then that would be the bad beat to end all bad beats.

Unfortunately, to my knowledge, the author of that magnificent quip has been lost to the annals of Fremont Street history.

Regardless, perhaps we should try to be patient as the U.S. betting industry struggles to take its first baby steps into the 21st century in several arenas. The best hope, long-term, for American sports gamblers is that these discussions — on non-sports wagering, on online betting and on other technological advancements —will one day seem like quaint anachronisms.

We’ll look back on them and laugh at how backward the prevailing thinking once was as we wager — from the comfort of our homes and at reduced juice, of course — on U.S. President Kardashian to win her second term by another landslide.


Jeff Haney is based in Las Vegas. Connect with him online at sophisticatedmaniac.com.

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