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Office pool safe? You bet

Tue., March 14, 2006

With your contribution to the Super Bowl pool long forgotten, it may be time to kick $5 into an NCAA basketball tournament office pool.

Between now and the April 3 championship game, the FBI estimates, more than $2.5 billion will be gambled on tournament games. Only $80 million of that will be wagered legally, according to information reference Web site

Is entering an office pool – becoming a “bracketeer,” as it’s come to be called – going to cost you a weekend of community service cleaning up goose poop in Riverfront Park?

True, office pools in which money is exchanged are illegal in Washington and Idaho. But if you pay to get into an NCAA men’s tournament pool, you’re about as likely to get busted as for driving 36 mph in a 35 mph zone or sampling grapes at the supermarket.

“It’s just like fantasy football,” said Gary Drumheller, Eastern Washington manager for the state Gambling Commission. “At some point, you have to decide what’s a priority.”

Added Roger Simmons, director of the Idaho lottery, which regulates gambling in the state: “You know they’re out there, but I’m not going to send my people out looking for them.”

As you gather around the television with fellow bracketeers, studying the matchups, picking upsets and sticking with the safe seeds, you may want to have this information handy:

Q. Is betting on sports legal in Washington or Idaho?

A. In some cases in Washington, yes – provided the amount of money wagered is equal to the amount paid to the winner or winners. For example, if a person bets $10 with a friend that Gonzaga will make it to the Final Four and the winner collects $10, that’s not a crime. If the bettors make their wager through a third party, who takes a percentage of the winnings or some other advantage, he or she is promoting gambling. That’s considered a crime.

In Idaho, all sports wagering involving money is illegal.

Q. Are office pools (i.e. entering NCAA bracket contests) legal in Washington or Idaho?

A. Not if money’s involved. Winning donated prizes, however, is legal. (Good luck talking your local merchant into shelling out a gift certificate to your 2006 March Madness champ.)

Q. Are sports boards (putting your name on a square) legal in Washington or Idaho?

A. It’s legal in Washington, providing no more than $1 a square for a total of $100 is wagered.

It is illegal in Idaho.

Q. Are there cases where law enforcers have come down on bracket managers and/or those playing in office pools?

A. No, not in recent memory. Agencies generally deal with bookies, who take a cut of the wagers made. That’s illegal.

Drumheller, who’s worked for the Gambling Commission for 16 years, said shutting down office pools is not a high priority. But, he said, there have been cases in which people have called, stating they put money in an office pool pot but didn’t get paid. Some cases have been investigated.

Simmons, director of the Idaho State Lottery for three years, said he does not have the staffing to shut down office pools.

Q. What is the penalty?

A. In both states, playing on the office-pool level is a misdemeanor and could result in a fine or community service.

Q. How can a Web site such as award $10,000 to the winner of its “men’s tournament challenge?”

A. There is no purchase necessary to play or win in ESPN’s “promotion” pool. The fine print on the official rules page states, “The promotion is strictly for entertainment purposes and may not be used in connection with any form of gambling.” (Tell that to the gazillions of people who use ESPN for their office pool site.)

Q. Why did Rick Neuheisel get fired as Washington Huskies football coach in June 2003 after it was discovered he wagered in an auction-style NCAA men’s basketball pool?

A. Neuheisel violated NCAA rules against gambling after he bet $6,400 and won $18,523. In March 2005, Neuheisel won a $4.5 million settlement in his lawsuit against the NCAA and the university, citing a memo by Washington’s former compliance officer who mistakenly authorized gambling in off-campus NCAA basketball pools.

Q. Where is sports betting legal?

A. Under federal law, it is legal in Nevada, Oregon, Delaware and Montana, but only Nevada and Oregon offer it. Nevada casinos post odds and accept wagers on professional and college sports, while Oregon has a state-run professional football pool.


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