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Vegas bookies set odds for debate

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton arrives with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday. (David Goldman / Associated Press)
Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton arrives with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for the third presidential debate at UNLV in Las Vegas, Wednesday. (David Goldman / Associated Press)
By Mary Jordan Washington Post

LAS VEGAS – If Donald Trump says the word “rigged” five times or more during Wednesday night’s debate, bookies will be paying out. Oddsmakers are even taking bets on whether the presidential candidates will shake hands.

Gambling on politics is forbidden in the United States, but informal betting still goes on in this city that is all about the odds.

And offshore gambling operations are reporting a surge in wagers not only on who will be the next U.S. president, but even what the point spread will be in Ohio.

Pat Morrow, chief oddsmaker for Bovada, an offshore betting company based in the Caribbean, said in a phone call from Antigua that he was now giving 50-50 odds that Trump and Clinton will shake hands at the opening of the debate. Bovada will pay out if “WikiLeaks” is said four times or more, and Trump needs to say “tremendous” nine times for any payout.

“Sports is more quantifiable,” said Morrow, talking out Bovada’s usual line of betting. As the saying goes, he said, “Politics is the wisdom of the crowd – and the crowd doesn’t always have much wisdom.”

So oddsmakers like him are studying things such as the “vibe” of the people, comments on Twitter and traditional polls.

Here in Vegas, legendary bookie Jimmy Vaccaro will be closely watching Wednesday night’s debate, to be held a few miles from the South Point casino where he runs the sports book.

“If Trump interrupts her one time, walks behind her one time, or says ”Make America Great Again“ more than five times, he has no chance,” said Vaccaro, as Chinese and Dutch reporters lined up to hear his latest take on the U.S. election.

Vaccaro, 71, who has been calculating odds since he played poker with his mom as a kid, said Trump was not a bad bet earlier this year. In fact, he spotted him early as a contender and quickly adjusted those early 100-to-1 odds.

Thousands of Trump’s supporters rallied at South Point during the primary season, Vaccaro said. South Point attracts working-class people who line up to place affordable bets and buy $1.50 hot dogs from a cart near the betting desk. High rollers hit other joints.

Vaccaro said that after a viral video showed Trump saying crude things about women and bragging about his ability to force himself on them sexually, “it’s been one mistake after another” for Trump. Now, Vaccaro thinks 95 percent of people know who they are voting for. He puts Trump’s chances of being president at 6 to 1.

Not bad from where Trump started, but far worse than when he accepted the nomination over the summer, Vaccaro said.

As scores of customers hovered around Vaccaro on Tuesday to bet on the World Series, he vented on his inability to take in any cash on Nov. 8: “Everyone is making money off the U.S. election but Americans!”

So he has to be content with “for entertainment purposes only” in offering his latest analysis of the Clinton-Trump matchup.

“She’s playing it pretty coy, and he’s digging himself deeper into a hole,” he said. Vaccaro joked that the only way now to change the outcome of the election would be “if the FBI walks into the middle of the debate and made an arrest.”

Clinton is now such a favorite, he said, that if you bet a $1 on her now, you would win cents.

(The odds Vaccaro sets are similar to those of Paddy Power, the mighty bookmaker that operates in Ireland and the United Kingdom.)

Voter turnout is also something bettors frequently ask Vaccaro to game out. Four months ago, he said records may have been shattered, but now he says it is unlikely that more than 131 million votes will be cast, as they were when Barack Obama won in 2008.

As for Wednesday night’s debate, Vaccaro is not predicting a highbrow event: “A boxing match would be more tactical, so I guess I would say this will be more like a ‘no-holds-barred’ wrestling match.”

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