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The World of Underground Gambling Reaches Fever Pitch Come Oscars Time

Odds expert Benjamin Eckstein compares gambling in the United States to smoking weed: millions of people partake and it’s not going away anytime soon. That includes gambling on Hollywood’s biggest night — the Oscars.

But unlike sporting events, which are legal to bet on in Nevada, and a handful of other states, placing a bet on Hollywood’s biggest night in Las Vegas is akin to breaking the law.

“There is no betting allowed on something that is predetermined, ever,” says Eckstein, a long-time Las Vegas resident who has devoted more than 30 years as the writer and creator of America’s Line, a syndicated betting odds column published in over 120 North American papers.

“There is a chance that something could leak out. It hasn’t happened, but that’s why the Nevada Gaming Control Board is very protective.”

Eckstein, who has no formal film biz expertise, usually devotes his time to sports figures. But he has spent more than a decade prognosticating entertainment-related odds for the Academy Awards. His first step for making the odds is collecting as much information on the Academy Award nominees as possible.

“What we do is look at what happens in the Golden Globes, what happens in the DGA Awards, and the other 17,000 awards shows leading up the Oscars,” he says. He then tracks who wins and loses and adjust the odds accordingly. “It’s similar to the sports world when a team gets hot and wins a lot of games we have what we call power ratings and we move the team’s power ratings up and their odds become better.”

Barring your common Oscar betting pool at the office where employees pluck down $5 or $10 here and there, it’s illegal in the U.S. to bet on the Oscars. But this doesn’t stop websites dedicated to predictions. It also doesn’t prevent Americans from finding ways to wager cash on who will take home the gold statuette. There are a number of offshore bookmakers to whom nearly anyone with access to internet and a credit card can place a bet on Hollywood’s biggest night, such as the Eckstein-approved gambling sites topbet.eu, and bovado.lv, which has an internet country code based in Latvia.

Casey Otto, a communications professional, has been betting online on the Oscars for several years.

“It’s just for fun,” Otto says. “At any given time I’m a little bit up or a little bit down, and I’m OK with being a little bit down because I’m paying for a hobby that I like.”
He’s unconcerned with the legality because he’s not dropping thousands of dollars, and the site he bets on is overseas, in Antigua, where betting is legal.

Last year, Otto raked in a couple hundred dollars as a win for wagering on “Moonlight” rather than the then-favored “La La Land.” This year, his money is on Daniel Day-Lewis for lead actor (Never mind that awards pundits have Oldman as the favorite, which is why Oscar betting is the turf of the non-pros.)

“He is so good, and so loved by everyone in the industry — and the value is really good,” Otto says. “The last time I checked the odds were 20 to 1, which means if you bet $10 you win $200.”

He doesn’t expect to buy a Cadillac with any of his winnings, but he says it makes the awards show more fun to watch because the stakes are higher. In fact, it’s difficult to place a significantly large bet on the Academy Awards — or take home more than a few hundred dollars — because many sportsbooks limit the amount you can bet to under $100 for entertainment categories.

One such sportsbook that limits big wagers on the Oscars is William Hill, one of the most reputable betting shops in the United Kingdom. Hill has been in operation since the 1930s, before gambling became legal in England. Rupert Adams, William Hill’s spokesperson, says that although they have offered betting on the Academy Awards for their clients for more than 25 years they are more reserved when it comes to the amount that people can bet on for entertainment categories.

“We are always very careful on these particular markets,” says Adams. For the Super Bowl, for example, Adams says that William Hill collected four bets that were over 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) whereas the maximum bet you can place online on the Academy Awards in England is 50 pounds ($69.35). “We’re always nervous that someone who knows the result will stiff us completely,” he says.

But that doesn’t stop the Brits from having fun.

“We are able to bet on just about anything that we deem to be inoffensive,” Adams says. Last year, there was a wager on whether or not Benedict Cumberbatch would be spotted at the Academy Awards with a flask (the odds were 3:1). This year, people can place their money on categories that include whether or not a star will cry when they take home an Oscar for best actor or actress, and there’s a category on whether or not someone is going to read out the wrong name of the winner for best picture (the odds are at 33:1).

However, it’s worth noting that unless you can physically walk into William Hill, or perhaps have a friend in the U.K. who can place a bet on, say, “Dunkirk” for best picture, it’s next to impossible for Americans to bet online on U.K. sites, or even access it.

“You can’t have an address in the United States — full stop,” says Adams, who has seen his fair share of American celebrities fly over the Atlantic and drop hundreds of dollars to place bets on U.S. politics.

For those that cannot jet off to England to place a bet, there’s the quasi-legal option of offshore online betting. But it comes with some risks.

“It’s buyers beware,” Eckstein says. “There are a lot of scamdicappers out there. You might make a deposit and all of a sudden you call up a number, or you go online, and try and get your money because you won a bet on the Super Bowl, and it’s like, whoa, this site doesn’t exist anymore.”
He always tells people to do their homework: get recommendations for websites from people you trust, and before you make a big deposit start out with a small one ($150-$200) to ensure the overseas betting site pays on time, or has helpful customer service. And what about the concern of the law coming and knocking down your door?

“There’s no way they could crack down on it,” says Eckstein. “[Again], it’s like weed. Everybody does it. Are they going to crack down on everybody that smokes a joint in their house? No.”

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