It won’t be long now before the state legislature starts to debate the merits of state-sanctioned sports wagering. It’s going to be a chaotic, expensive and, no doubt, highly irrational controversy. The shouting begins when the legislature convenes in February. Sadly, we can’t bet on the outcome.
For the record, legalizing sports betting just makes sense. The idea that sports betting would become the fourth leading addiction — right behind alcohol, opiates and slot machines — is downright goofy.
When neophytes dabble in sports betting, they almost always find out the sad truth: it’s not nearly as exciting as it seems. And harder. The guy next door might lose a few bucks wagering on the Vikings, but soon enough he’ll discover the money is better spent on beer.
But for those of us who always have and always will bet on sporting events, the switch from off-shore casinos to state-sanctioned wagering sites will be a good thing. Some of the money we wager will go to the state instead of a shaky cabal of unseen hustlers. And we will be confident that the state will quickly pay up when we want to cash in.
There are, however, hazards. If you make a big score, the state will want its money. Instantly.
Which takes me back to a time long ago and not so far away; although now that I bet the horses on my home computer, Shakopee might as well be on another planet.
Now that the statute of limitations has run out, I can talk about the day the IRS came knocking on my door. (Metaphorically, of course.)
It all began with a pretty good score at Canterbury. Somewhere in the vicinity of $20,000 on a Pick Six wager.
Read carefully, because this could happen to you if you make a bet that returns, say, $1,000 on a ridiculous eight-team NFL parlay.
First, the IRS withholds around 28 percent of our winnings. I knew that was coming. But then I had a difficult choice: I could say goodbye to that chunk of money, or I could claim losses against the winning and get that withheld money back.
Well, I was young and fearless. Or perhaps just more afraid of going broke than I was of losing all that money.
Oh, I knew if I claimed the losses I was going to be audited. It’s pretty much automatic. Billionaires — no names, of course — can avoid paying taxes for a decade by manipulating the tax laws. But an honest, hard-working radio hack would see the day of reckoning.
So when the letter arrived — two years later — I called Morrie, my accountant, and told him I needed his help.
No problem, he said. All you have to do is show them a ledger of every bet you made that year, and make sure that the final tally shows you lost more than $20,000.
Luckily, I had gathered a shoebox full of losing wagers and stored them in my basement. Many of them were discolored and curling, which not only gave them more authenticity but obscured any shoeprints. There were $100 win bets, $2 show bets, $320 Pick Six wagers and all manner of exactas, trifectas and superfectas.
The day of reckoning finally arrived. Morrie drove. He seemed almost joyful. Morrie was what some would call an aggressive bean counter. Not the sallow guy who wears a green visor and gets his kicks by reading the agate type on a 300-page stock prospectus.
He weaved in and out of traffic on I-94 as he explained the game plan. “This guy Larssen, he’s a good auditor, but like all the rest he’s home in time for dinner every night,” he said. “That’s why I made the appointment for 3 o’clock.”
Still, I was a bit nervous when we walked into Larssen’s office.
Of course, I was eager to break the tension — which might have been a good idea except that, in retrospect, I doubt Larssen was even capable of anxiety. Whereas I had dropped a couple of hits of benzos with my lunch.
I don’t know. Maybe I was a little giddy. Much of the wall behind Larsen’s office was occupied by a giant poster depicting a Norwegian ski slope. “Ah, yes,” I said, pretending to marvel at the snowy scene. “The Motherland!”
Larssen was unamused. Perhaps downright offended. Was this little Jewish guy making fun of his heritage?
We got down to business quickly. I produced a weathered notebook containing 152 Daily Racing Form charts — the detailed results from every racing day of that fateful year. On each chart I had recorded my winnings and losses for the day, along with the losing tickets.
Larssen announced that we were going to go through the records from all 152 days. As he reached for his reading glasses, my panic-stricken eyes were fixed on Morrie, who just smiled and nodded at me.
We made it through four days. Larssen was a smart guy, but the truth was that he knew nothing about horse racing and had no idea how to read those damned charts. More importantly, it was no 4:25.
He looked gravely at me, paused for effect, and said, “Well, everything seems to be in order.” I nodded and smiled — not grinned — as I calculated the check I’d be getting from the IRS. Hello, six grand!
The three of us walked out to the parking lot together. As we were leaving the building, however, Larssen stopped and said: “There’s just one thing I don’t understand.”
I gave Morrie my best WTF look, but thanks to Morrie’s confidence (and perhaps the benzos), I was able to smile and say, “What’s that, Olaf?” (Not his real first name, which, as I recall, was actually Eric.)
“Well,” he said, “some of your bets were for $100, but then sometimes you’d bet $2 to show. Every bet seemed to be of a different amount.”
“Ah, yes,” I replied. “It’s all about value,” and then I proceeded to give an explanation that I had once heard the legendary sports bettor Lem Banker give to some Vegas showgirls. (Long story. Another time.) “See, let’s say you go to the supermarket and you’re going to buy a 12-ounce bottle of your favorite shampoo. You figure it will cost about five bucks. Only this day it’s on sale for four bucks, so what do you do? (Dead silence) Well, you buy three bottles.”
Larssen nodded as if he understood. So, for that matter, did the showgirls. Happily, I never saw Larssen again. Sadly, I never saw the showgirls again.
The bankroll expanded to $1175 last week after a fluke 3-0 performance. I am not as inspired this week, so I have two mediocre plays.
Baltimore at Seattle
These are two of the most productive offenses in the NFL, but that’s not reflected in the over-under. After running up almost 500 yards from scrimmage vs. the Bengals last week, the Ravens are No. 1 with a bullet atop the total yardage standings with an average of 451 per game. And the Seahawks aren’t far behind at fifth with 408 per game. Plus, Seattle has gone over in 12 of its most recent 15 games.
The pick: Seattle 34, Baltimore 31 — Over 48 1/2 for $50
San Francisco at Washington
There was a time when I shied away from obvious plays on top-level teams vs. weaklings. For one thing, they didn’t win more than half the time, and, even worse, I wasn’t exactly doing a public service because the the casual gambler was going to make that bet anyway. But it seems that bad teams are so awful this year that the line hasn’t caught up. The Redskins were able to defeat the Worst Team Ever, Miami, by one point last week and, of more significance, are 1-5 against the spread. San Francisco has the highest yards-per-pass attempt differential in the NFL, which I’ll explain some day soon.
The pick: San Francisco 34, Redskins 12 — 49ers minus 10 for $70