Pope Vote Created a Great Betting Frenzy

When white smoke finally rose from the Vatican, many people around me were ecstatic. They really didn’t care who was made the head of the Catholic Church on a philosophical level, they simply wanted to cash a bet. 6 people in the room had over $1,000 in wagers on the pope including Marc Ouellet at

When white smoke finally rose from the Vatican, many people around me were ecstatic. They really didn’t care who was made the head of the Catholic Church on a philosophical level, they simply wanted to cash a bet. 6 people in the room had over $1,000 in wagers on the pope including Marc Ouellet at 8/1, Pedro Scherer at the same odds, Sean O’Malley at 25/1, Joao Braz de Aviz and Timothy Dolan and 66/1 and one brave soul went for a 250/1 outsider. As the bells rang and the camera panned to close ups of the curtained room, everyone in the room was trying to see if there was any sign of who the pope was, thinking they could still get down that last second bet. No one in the room really seemed to care about the blessings that were being iterated or about the history of the papacy which ABC and CNN were espousing, but the tension itself was exciting nonetheless, particularly since it seemed that the announcement was really being dragged out.

“This is better than a Super Bowl game tied with less than 2 minutes to play,” a colleague said to me, “and it’s definitely more exciting than the Academy Awards.”

Then when the Cardinal Protodeacon finally announced in Italian that Argentina’s Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the new pope, the room completely broke out into a series of groans and expletives. Actually it wasn’t at the time of the announcement that the words were uttered, since no one understood a word of what the cardinal was saying, but rather when the new Pope’s name was flashed on the screen. It was as if the home team threw an interception in the dying minutes of the game while driving for a score. “Oh well better luck next time,” one of my colleagues said as he turned off his live stream of CNN and went back to work.

Sportsbooks throughout the world wrote over $2 million in “pope bets,” including Paddy Power which wrote about $750,000 in bets, Betfair which had over $500,000 in bets and William Hill which was over $100,000. Unfortunately for those books it appears that there was some last minute inside information since the odds on Bergoglio fell from 50/1 to 25/1 in a day likely eating into most of their profits.

While many who heard about the betting likely thought that the activity was restricted to a bunch of degenerates, the truth is that the Vatican was aware of the betting as well. As many probably heard this year the Vatican put in descramblers at the conclave to disable cell phones and PDA devices and one of the reasons, according to some websites was as a result of the betting. While the papal candidates themselves may not have placed a bet (although a dime at 50/1 would certainly help a struggling parish), there were concerns that others in the room were prepared to send text messages or make phone calls to friends who could use the information anyway they wanted, including getting a bet down. Apparently it happened in the election of Pope Benedict which was a reason for the choice to descramble signals at the Vatican.

“The popes vowed to secrecy,” a priest told a reporter on the web, “but others in the room wouldn’t have had the same requirements.” And without outright saying it the priest hinted that in the last papal election insiders were relaying the information by various methods to friends who used the online sportsbooks to win a papal wager. Benedict was always the favorite in the last election but his odds drifted to 5/1 before settling at 3/2 odds just before the announcement – a clear indication of insider betting.

This probably shouldn’t be too surprising though. Betting after all is human nature. It’s existed forever and is seen as a noble way of settling disputes. In the Old Testament, lots are cast to decide issues on 70 occasions and they are cast 5 times in the New Testament. And on only one occasion, John 19, where the Roman soldiers cast lots, was gambling seen as negative. And really it’s only the new evangelical churches that are so strongly opposed to gambling. Of course most of the evangelical preachers are also opposed to drinking, smoking, partying, dancing etc. In the Catholic Church, on the other hand, gambling is accepted and many churches exist as a result of bingo nights and raffle tickets. In fact it’s probably a safe assumption that around 250,000 years ago some caveman wagered 2 rocks with another caveman that he could spear the mastodon faster than the other caveman could.

It’s that reason that I and so many others in the gambling industry get upset when politicians spew nonsense about the dangers of gambling and suggest that they are trying to ban gambling expansion for our own good. The truth is that Catholics gamble, Jews gamble, Muslims gamble, Hindus gamble, and Atheists gamble and yes even some Protestants gamble. And there’s nothing anyone can or should do about it. In the Western world we live in a democracy and as part of that freedom we can spend our income as we like including betting on awards shows, the presidency and even the pope. And for those who profited from the insider information and got their bets down on Pope Francis, God Bless them and well done. While they probably enjoyed a huge steak dinner to celebrate their winnings on Friday, my colleagues and I had macaroni and cheese. But that’s what gambling is all about – you win some and you lose some but there’s nothing more enjoyable than at least having a chance.

 

Contact Hartley via email at Hartley[at]osga[dot]com.

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