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How Gamblers Found a Conscience and Stopped Betting on the Coronavirus Death Toll

What’s a bridge too far for the ‘degenerate’ guys who will bet on literally anything?

So-called “degenerate gamblers,” a title they happily give themselves (if often truncated to “degens” online), are notorious for being willing to bet on anything — politics, Belarusian soccer, marbles, and for a while at least, the coronavirus death toll. “Early on, there was maybe more of that going on when [COVID-19] was still in the ‘current event’ phase,” says Sean Green, host of the Sports Gambling Podcast

In fact, Green himself says he tried offering an over-under to his friends on the total number of deaths, but no one would take the over. “I was confident on under 2,000 deaths [and] figured it was good gambling karma to take the under. But none of them would bite,” he tells me. “Nobody wants the other side. It may be the one bet where the public doesn’t want to take the over.” 

As such, coronavirus related bets have all but vanished in recent weeks. For example, the latest post on Reddit’s hub for gamblers, r/sportsbook, is from two months ago (the screenshot included is from the website MyBookie, but any reference to coronavirus on the site itself has since disappeared): 

Will the Coronavirus kill more people than the Black Plague? from sportsbook

“Most books didn’t offer anything directly related to COVID outcomes like deaths or number of cases in the first place,” says Jason, a 24-year-old in Texas who’s managed to continue gambling through the pandemic. “The primary exception would be MyBookie, but they have a shady reputation in general.” 

For starters, he says that from a pure-numbers standpoint, the data around the pandemic can get tricky depending on the source of information, especially given how often those numbers have been suppressed or were wrong. But more importantly, he adds, “Many of these sites are unregulated and operating in, at best, a legal gray area. So they don’t want to attract the wrath of angry U.S. authorities. Because running what could be perceived as a death pool or ‘assassination’ market would definitely do that.”

“We actually were asked by Apple to change our bets that referred to coronavirus because their app-review process is highly sensitized to ‘questionable and objectionable content’ — at least more so than the folks at Google,” says William Labanowski, creator of WagerLab, an app that allows you to bet on things like live TV and sports with friends. (To be clear, Labanowski never offered bets on “total deaths or total hospitalizations, or anything like that.” “While I wouldn’t personally be offended by folks betting on that sort of thing, someone who lost a loved one might feel differently, and you have to draw the line somewhere,” he continues.) 

Ultimately, Labanowski says he “ended up working it out with Apple’s review team and obtained approval to list our coronavirus-related bets under the category name ‘Flattening the Curve.’” This way, he believes, it “adds some positivity to the whole thing, which I agree was a good idea. Now’s a time when people need a bit more positivity.” 

But for Zach, founder of the website 4CasterSports (he didn’t provide a last name), celebrities are definitely fair game. “The game is Celebrity COVID Caster,” he explains. It’s free to play and entails drafting a team of 10 celebrities. For every celebrity you pick that tests positive for COVID-19 before the end of August, you earn a point. The person with the most points will supposedly win $10,000. “There are no odds, you just select 10 celebrities from a list,” Zach says. “We’ve dealt with some people on our email list calling us horrible people, but we don’t believe that predicting if a celebrity gets coronavirus makes anyone more likely to catch it.”

Moreover, he adds, “[The game is merely] dark humor meant to entertain people and help them pass the time.”

Jason is familiar with this kind of action. “I bet on any senator to test positive for COVID, which won after Rand Paul did,” he tells me, adding that he also bet on Donald Trump or Mike Pence to not test positive, which he’s losing confidence in. 

Over at WagerLab, Labanowski says interest in the total number of COVID cases is still relatively high, which accounts for about 10 percent of all the bets made on the platform. In order to set the line on them, he consults the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, or IHME. “Their models have been fairly solid when looking out less than two weeks,” he says. “Before, they had models on deaths, ventilator usage and hospital bed usage; so we’d run some math on current case counts and the IHME model for hospital resource usage to arrive at our predicted current case count for our bets.” 

Thus far, “the method has worked very well. The actual numbers are usually not far off from the line.” 

More popular, however, are the abundant, coronavirus-adjacent bets. That is, on WagerLab and elsewhere, gamblers can bet on which theme parks will open first, when sports leagues will come back and which of two companies will go bankrupt first. “In a way, you can see that things are trending in the right direction just by the types of bets we’ve been offering on WagerLab,” Labanowski tells me. “A few weeks ago, those coronavirus-related bets looked a bit different. They were more like, ‘Will the U.S. enact a national curfew?’” 

But even then, they’re not really what the degens are clamoring for. To that end, Labanowski tells me about the action he took for five Korean baseball games that were played in the middle of the night (U.S. time) earlier in the week. They brought in a whopping 35 percent of all of WagerLab’s bets. Meanwhile, the handful of prop bets it offered for the NFL draft drove a “1,000 percent increase in bets placed that day compared to what we’d been seeing during the month prior.”  

So the real money isn’t on when sports come back, but for when the games themselves begin again.