Gambling on Sports

There are two likely sources for the word gambling: the Old Saxon gamene, which became abbreviated to the contemporary ‘‘game’’; or the Italian gambetto, source of ‘‘gambit,’’ a practice of sacrificing something minor in order to secure a larger advantage. Gambling now refers to playing games of luck or skill, using a stake, usually a sum of money, in anticipation of winning a larger sum.

While gambling on sports is obviously a product of the growth of organized sports from the mid nineteenth century, playing games of chance for money or staking wagers on the outcome of events probably dates back to antiquity.

Modern forms of gambling emerged in connection with changing ideas about time and nature. As pre-Enlightenment thinkers advanced the notion that reason and rationality lay behind all earthly affairs, the roles of chance, happen stance or pure randomness were seen as increasingly problematic. In an ordered universe, ignorance of affairs was merely imperfect knowledge because everything was potentially knowable. August Comte’s positivism was perhaps the epitome of this, recognizing only observable phenomena and rejecting metaphysics, theism, and anything else that lay beyond human perception. The emerging emphasis on science led to the conclusion that given greater knowledge, the seeming vagaries of nature could be comprehended and subordinated to the rational, calculating mind.

Gambling is guided by such reasoning: admittedly, the conscious thought that lies behind rolling dice or drawing lots is hardly likely to resemble any kind of calculation; these are games of chance, played with the intention of winning money. But the motive behind gambling on sports is influenced by a more rational style of thinking: that it is possible to predict the outcome of an event by the employment of a calculus of probability. No one wagers money on a sporting event without at least the suspicion that they are privy to a special knowledge about a competitive outcome. A hunch, a taste, a fancy, a ‘‘feel’’ – all these add to the calculus at work in the mind of even the most casual gambler when he or she stakes money on a competition.

Orientations of gamblers differ widely: some always feel a frisson whether it is in watching a horse romp home or some dice roll; others observe from a position of detachment, their interest resting on only the result. The sports gambler bets with head as well as heart; the reward is both in the winnings and in the satisfaction that he or she has divined a correct result from the unmanageable flux of a competitive event.

In his Luck: The Brilliant Randomness of Everyday Life (1995), Nicholas Rescher identifies a surge in popularity in wagering on contests of skill and chance during the English Civil War (1641–5) and the Thirty Years’ War in continental Europe (1618–48). Starved of entertainment, soldiers and sailors killed time by wagering on virtually any activity. Returning to civilian society, the militia brought with them their habits, and the enthusiasm for gambling spread, aligning itself with the games of skill that were growing in popularity in England.

The 1665 Gaming Act was the first piece of legislation designed to outlaw gambling, principally to restrict the debts that were being incurred as a result of the growing stakes. Some activities had attracted gambling for decades, perhaps centuries. Swordplay, for example, was a pursuit that was viscerally thrilling to watch and stimulated the human passion for prediction. As the military use of swords declined, so the contests continued simply for recreation and entertainment. Dueling was perfect for gamblers. Engaging in competitive con tests simply for the satisfaction they afforded the competitor and observer was exactly the kind of wasteful and sinful behavior despised by the party of English Protestants and Puritans.

Blood sports were popular in nineteenth century England and North America. Their attraction, in part, was due to their amenability to betting. Even as the civilizing process altered the threshold of repugnance and made such grim and cruel pursuits less tolerable, cock fighting, bear baiting and other blood sports remained, principally because of gambling. Pugilism was another combat sport that attracted what was known as a ‘‘fancy’’ or following of ardent spectators who would pit their forecasting skills against each other. Sponsors of pugilists were often extravagant backers of their charges. The influence of gambling on prize fighting became injurious and corruption was rife.

Boxing and gambling have gone hand in hand ever since, though there were other less probable sports that attracted bettors. Cricket, for example, in the early nineteenth century, had its hardcore spectators who were prone not only to gambling but also to drinking and rowdiness. Gambling regulations remained in the laws of the game until the 1880s and betting was still very much part of the sport until at least mid century. Lords, the home stadium of cricket’s governing federation, banned gambling in the 1820s and, according to Dennis Brailsford, in his British Sport: A Social History one player was banned for allegedly throwing a match.’’

Brailsford estimates that the money staked on boxing was rivaled ‘‘and sometimes exceeded’’ by that involved in pedestrianism, the period’s equivalent of track. Pedestrianism defined a variety of races and events, sometimes head to head, or against the clock, often involving both men and women. There were wheel barrow races and hopping contests, as well as such unusual challenges as picking up potatoes. The appeal of pedestrianism was that it was possible to wager on practically anything. Opposition to working class gambling on sports bore fruit in the form of two pieces of legislation in 1853 and 1906, which were ostensibly framed to forbid off course betting.

In the US, where gambling was – and still is in many states – illegal, baseball nevertheless attracted gamblers. Perhaps the best known instance of corruption had its source in gambling. The Black Sox Scandal of 1919 involved several Chicago White Sox players who were bribed by a gambling syndicate to throw a World Series against underdogs Cincinnati Reds. Money was at the root of this instance of corruption, which was chronicled by John Sayles in his movie Eight Men Out. The players were poorly paid and exploited by Major League Baseball long before the advent of free agency. The film and the Elliot Asinof book (of the same title) on which it is based depicts the players sympathetically, in some senses cheated by their employers.

Animal racing, from its outset, was fair game for gaming. In their modern forms, horse racing and dog racing proved the most attractive to gamblers. Dog racing has its origins in eighteenth century coursing, and involved highly bred and trained dogs, which chased and usually killed a fleeing hare. One of the attractions of meetings was the opportunity to wager and drink convivially. Hoteliers and publicans would promote coursing meets. It became an organized sport, complete with its own organization in 1858, when a National Coursing Club was established.

As opposition to what was obviously one of a number of blood sports prevalent at the time, coursing dispensed with living hares and substituted a mechanical equivalent. The first electric hare was used in 1919 and came into popular use at the end of the 1920s. In the US, the betting norm became pari mutuel, from the French, meaning mutual stake. (This type of betting was introduced in New Zealand as far back as 1880.) In the 1930s, this also took off in on course British horse racing (known as the totalizer).

A new form of gambling on soccer posed threats to both greyhound and horse racing. Known as the pools, it came to life in the early 1930s and captured the British public’s imagination almost immediately. Newspapers had been publishing their own versions of pools for many years, but the practice was declared illegal in 1928. Brailsford notes how the $20 million staked in the 1934/35 season doubled within two years. The outlay was usually no more than a few pence and the bets were typically collected from one’s home. The aim of pools was to select a requisite number of drawn games, so it was not classified as a game of chance, but one of skill, thus escaping the regulation of gaming legislation. By the outbreak of war, there were 10 million gamblers on the pools. The popularity the pools enjoyed with working class bettors stayed intact until the introduction of the national lottery (modeled on the US state lotteries) in the early 1990s.

In the 1990s, betting on the spread became one of the most popular gambling forms. The bettor could wager not only on the result of a contest but on any facet of it. Spread betting was popularized in the US, then became the norm in Britain, especially in soccer.

Sports betting, while nominally illegal in most parts of the US, remains popular because gamblers typically have access to a Las Vegas bookmaker. The Internet has facilitated online betting, which effectively circumvents legal restrictions on gambling. A valid credit card and Internet access is all that is needed to gamble on practically any sports event, anywhere in the world.

Sociological research on gambling in sports has been rare because it is difficult to collect valid and reliable data. Therefore, we are left with case histories of gamblers and the athletes and teams that altered competitive outcomes or shaved points from their scores to enable gamblers, sometimes themselves, to win bets (Ginsburg 2003). Basketball presents a prime example. As Alan Wykes (1964) points out: ‘‘American basketball has been more notorious than football for its fixing scandals of the 1950s when college stars or whole teams were being bribed to throw games.’’ Like any other competitive sport, basketball is a natural, if unwitting, ally to gambling. And history suggests that, where gambling is present, corruption is rarely far away.

Former Arizona State star Stevin Hedake Smith admitted helping a gambling ring by shaving points during his senior year as a way of relieving his own gambling debts. In one 1994 game, the Sun Devils were favored by a 14 point lead, so Smith and his accomplices had to make sure their team won by six points because the bookie wanted a cushion. Late in the game Arizona State led 40–27, but Smith began to allow more space to the shooters he was meant to be guarding and the score narrowed to finish 88–82. Smith revealed to Sports Illustrated (Yaeger 1998) how he could adjust his game to accommodate the various spreads, usually by easing off. By holding a victory margin to a certain number of points, players could earn $20,000. Players sometimes bet on their own games.

Gambling’s association with sports continues. Some sports’ enduring popularity is directly attributable to betting. In both Europe and the US, horse and dog racing thrive on a betting levy (a fixed proportion of bookmakers’ revenues). Interest in jai alai revolves around betting. The movement of major boxing contests to Las Vegas is no accident: boxing’s historical connection with gambling is a sturdy one and gamblers flock to Las Vegas as much to bet as to enjoy the bouts.

Any activity, whether shopping, eating chocolate or watching television, has the potential to induce dependency. Gambling also, though ‘‘compulsive gamblers’’ are typically drawn to games of chance rather than gambling on sports events, where elements of choice, discretion, judgment and prescience are allied to luck.


  1. Ginsburg, D. E. (2003) The Fix Is In: A History of Baseball Gambling and Game Fixing Scandals. McFarland, Jefferson, NC.
  2. Wykes, A. (1964) Gambling. Aldus Books, London.
  3. Yaeger, D. (1996) Undue Process: The NCAA’s Injustice For All. Sagamore Publishing, Champaign, IL.
  4. Yaeger, D. (1998) Confessions of a Point Shaver. Sports Illustrated 89(19): November 9.

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