A bet was made. A game was watched. Money exchanged hands.
This didn’t take place in a seedy underground location amid whispers and slips of paper discretely changing hands. No, I’m talking about a bet I made recently from the couch in my living room. I was betting that the U.S. would beat Mexico in an impending fútbol match and I was making my bet loudly, sure and proud that I would emerge victorious. My husband, by the way, is from Mexico, and he was backing his bet with as much fervor and pride as I did (which means a tied match was the best possible outcome in the Williams-Alvarez household).
I never thought twice about the laws that might punish me for such a gamble. That is until The New York Times introduced me to Nelson Urena. Arrested on March 13, Mr. Urena had 38 slips of paper in his jacket, $1,024 in his back pocket, and was charged with promoting gambling.
From a basement apartment on East 115th Street, Mr. Urena engaged in “playing the numbers”, an illegal form of gambling involving hundreds of little sheets of paper, numbers jotted on chalkboards, and a runner who goes around to take bets from others.
And surely the bet I made was different than Mr. Urena’s, right? No runner. No jotting down. No basement.
New York’s Constitution, in Article I, Section 9, states, “no lottery or the sale of lottery tickets, pool-selling, bookmaking, or any other kind of gambling….shall hereafter be authorized or allowed within this state.” The exceptions authorize state-operated lotteries, pari-mutual wagering on horse races, and certain specified games of chance that are monitored by local governments, are run by charitable organizations, and which do not exceed specified amounts.
New York Penal Law Section 225 (2) says a person engages in gambling “when he stakes or risks something of value upon the outcome of a contest of chance or a future contingent event not under his control or influence, upon an agreement or understanding that he will receive something of value in the event of a certain outcome.”
A 1991 case in the Supreme Court of New York determined that “three elements cause an event to constitute an unlawful game of chance, or lottery, to wit, consideration, chance, and a prize.”
And each of these elements is present is Mr. Urena’s playing of the numbers: people stake money in exchange for chancing on the right combination of numbers and, a prize, in the form of more money, is sometimes won.
One could say the same three elements can be found somewhere in my recent bet against Mexico’s soccer team, too. I shelled out $20 and I greedily accepted the prize. Even though I am admitting all this on the record by writing this article, I can be sure that local authorities won’t be knocking down my door; social, private betting is permitted in New York.
In 1992, Congress enacted the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) to prevent the spread of state-sponsored sports gambling and to protect the integrity of professional and amateur sports (and likely to prevent something like the Black Sox Scandal from happening again). PASPA renders it unlawful for states to authorize sports wagering. However, an exception was carved out for any state that allowed or operated a sports betting scheme at any time between 1976 and 1990. This fully exempted Nevada and partially exempted Delaware, Oregon, and Montana from the sports betting prohibition. New Jersey was also given one year in which to pass a law authorizing sports betting, but the legislature was unable to pass the appropriate legislation in time.
New Jersey officials subsequently challenged the constitutionality of PASPA, arguing that the Act violated the state’s sovereign rights. But last month, the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey determined that the law had a rational basis, did not infringe on New Jersey’s sovereign rights, and was within the rights of Congress’ commerce power because of the interstate nature of sports betting.
There are many laws regulating the world of online betting. For example, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, passed in 2006, makes it a crime for anyone “engaged in the business of betting or wagering” to “knowingly accept” credit cards, electronic fund transfers, checks and other financial instruments in connection with unlawful Internet gambling. The Wire Act prohibits the use of the Internet for transmission of sports bets or wagers or information assisting in the placement of such bets or wagers, unless the transmission constitutes either a news report, or information relating to sports betting that is legal in both the state from which it was sent and the state in which it was received.
I personally find gambling exhilarating. And for those of you who agree, I’d like to offer some words of wisdom from Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls”: Avoid a sure thing. The danger, as Mr. Masterson explains it, is “an ear full of cider.”