What's at Stake in Office Gambling

How big a deal is office gambling? "Cubicle Culture" columnist Jared Sandberg considers.

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BILL WOLFF, host:

It is Super Bowl week, as we all know, which means that all over America, office workers - like us - are in gambling pools trying to take money from one another by predicting the outcome of the big game. In the name of journalistic integrity, I must announce my bias about this quasi illegal and productivity sapping rite of winter. I love and support it.

In 1998, I provided picks to a friend who is in the Seinfeld football pool. Yes, that Seinfeld. But, no, I don't know him, his wife or anybody who worked on the show, so technically, I am not namedropping.

But my friend won that pool and about $2,500. Yes, I just bragged.

Last year, I invented and organized an "American Idol" office pool which I eventually won by picking Jordin Sparks to win it all months before she did.

STEWART: And I have say, people in MSNBC, who should be concentrating on other things, deciding between Blake and Jordin. I saw it happen.

WOLFF: Why should they be concentrating on other things?

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Anyway, I'm embarrassed that I won. But I did not win anything except free lunch on my self at the commissary for a week and history's most dubious bragging rights. Anyway, from now until the end of March Madness, we'll hear a lot of worry about office betting and its impact on productivity. Are office poolers endangering America's GDP, or is the man just trying to keep them down?

We called our pal Jared Sandberg to talk about office gambling. He writes the Cubicle Culture column at The Wall Street Journal.

Good morning, Jared.

Mr. JARED SANDBERG (Columnist, Cubicle Culture, The Wall Street Journal): Good morning, Bill.

WOLFF: Tell us: Are office pools legal or illegal?

Mr. SANDBERG: Well, this really comes down to state law. So in some states, they are, technically. And in some states - in many states - they're not. The big threshold here with this - with office pools are whether some organizer is pocketing money.

So there was a man in Staten Island who was arrested for taking a 10-percent cut of the winnings a few years ago. But oftentimes, it is - you know there really isn't usually a cut. And so though it may technically be illegal, the police often have better things to do than to enforce, you know, a betting pool on, say, a baby due date.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WOLFF: Yes. We've got one of those going right now. So basically, you can be a better, but you can't be a bookie.

Mr. SANDBERG: Yeah. That's pretty much it. That's probably the simplest way to look at it. Yeah.

WOLFF: So the worry we always hear about in the media at this time of year is that office pools are a distraction and that they drain productivity in the office place and affect the American economy to some horrifying degree. How real is that?

Mr. SANDBERG: You know, I take these warnings with a grain of salt. Usually, they're offered by companies starting now through March Madness, that are offering a service to solve this problem.

So for example, I got a press release yesterday about Super Bowl-itis that claimed the 1.4 million employees in the U.S. may call in sick on Monday. And, of course, this was, you know, commissioned - a study commissioned by a company that has, you know - employee absence management software. So, you know, I get a little nervous about that only because when I asked about, well, how many people normally call in sick on Monday - because we know that Mondays and Fridays are the two most common sick days - I never heard back from that. And so that number may not be all that different from what the normal Monday absenteeism is.

So the problem is that when you really look at behind some of these other numbers, there's a famous number that's put out about what March Madness costs U.S. businesses. One year was 889 million. The next year, it was 3.8 billion. Then the next year after that, it was 1.2 billion. This kind of whiplash between these numbers doesn't exactly suggest that they were scientifically gathered data. And the fact is that, oftentimes, I think these studies overlook the work that you do at home, you know, on behalf of your company which obviously helps productivity.

STEWART: Jared, I have a question, though. What if - you know, what if you don't give a whip about the Super Bowl? What if you don't care about March Madness? But don't look at me like that.

WOLFF: There is something terribly wrong with you, honey. That's the answer.

STEWART: Bill just glared at me. But I might feel pressured to be part of the game.

Mr. SANDBERG: Well, I think there are subtle pressures. I mean, if you're someone who really wants to participate in whatever social event that goes on, yeah, you know, if that's all that's being discussed at work, yeah, you probably will kick in $5 for the privilege of feeling more, you know, more at ease at work.

I think that that's often overlooked, you know, with all these March Madness and Super Bowl stuff. And the fact is that some people couldn't care less. There are plenty of people who don't even know what teams are in the Super Bowl and really don't feel at some social loss for not knowing that. And so that's the only thing that I - that, you know, I find that's often overlooked is that, you know, there are plenty of people who like the Super Bowl, and that's great. But there are plenty of people, you know, who are just annoyed by it, you know? And that's fine.

WOLFF: I think what they'd find if they got in - the people who are annoyed by it - is that nobody knows anything, because people who are annoyed and don't know anything have just as good a chance as the people who spend their entire lives is thinking about it. Finally…

Mr. SANDBERG: And often win.

WOLFF: Exactly. Finally, is there a Wall Street journal pool? Are you in it, and who do you like in the game?

Mr. SANDBERG: You know, there is - if there is a pool, I was not invited.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Jared's in my club.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANDBERG: As far as who I, you know, I will express this and admit my own bias, too, Bill - you know, New York Giants, I like a lot. And so I can't bet against them.

WOLFF: Well, I appreciate your transparency. I surely do.

Jared Sandberg, thanks very much this morning.

Jared writes the Cubicle Culture column at The Wall Street Journal.

Have a great day. Thank you, Jared.

Mr. SANDBERG: My pleasure.

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