Gambling, the Real National Pastime From obscure tennis matches to televised poker, the public's obsession with gambling seems to have few bounds. But, as Frank Deford notes, our wagering ways have deep roots.

Gambling, the Real National Pastime

Gambling, the Real National Pastime

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More of Deford on Gambling

You've probably heard that suspicions were, shall we say, piqued recently when millions of dollars were suddenly bet on the 87th-ranked tennis player, one Martin Arguello, when he played the world No. 4, Nikolay Davydenko, in the first round of an obscure tournament somewhere you've never heard of in Poland. And, heavens to Betsy, Davydenko suddenly decided he had a toe injury and had to retire. My, my.

But that denouement did not surprise me nearly so much as to learn that just one British gambling site — named Betfair — announced in passing that it regularly took in about $700,000 on such a match. Think of it: $700,000 routinely bet at just one gambling establishment on most everyday matches.

Never mind that you've got to be batty to bet tennis. And forget anything as sinister as gambling coups. Lots of times at a tournament, the best players get guarantees — appearance money up front. These guys aren't exactly encouraged to knock themselves out.

Deep, too, in the sport is a culture of what, in friendly terms, is called "tanking" — losing on purpose because the player simply wants to go home or get on to the next tournament where he has a girlfriend waiting. How often have I been regaled, late at night at the bar, knee-slapping tales about opponents, both of whom were trying to tank the same match.

And sometimes — and I repeat: $700,000 bet on just one first-round match at a rinky-dinky tournament in the bowels of Poland — sometimes do you get the feeling that the whole world is becoming a craps table? People devotedly watching strangers play poker on TV? Who would have believed it? Or do you know they now want to put a casino on Easter Island? What? They'll be dealing blackjack in the Taj Mahal next year. Nevada used to have the sin market cornered. Now 27 states boast casinos that about one-quarter of Americans patronize every year.

What's the matter with the other three-quarters of you patriots? Get with the program. Casinos, not industry, are touted as the hope for the redevelopment of a city like Detroit. Do you get the feeling that if houses, roads, churches, schools, hospitals and other bric-a-brac are not being rebuilt fast along the Gulf Coast, not even Hurricane Katrina or FEMA could keep casinos washed out of business for long?

Now get this. In Vegas this season you can legally gamble on fantasy football. You can bet, say, that Peyton Manning in one game, will do better than Tom Brady in another. But, ah, in a real way, this just takes us sports fans back to our origins. For all the talk about how sweet and innocent and pastoral baseball began in the republic, the bald fact is that much of its early popularity came about simply because our dear national pastime was such a good betting game. Gamblers had sections all to themselves, changing the odds every inning, sometimes even every batter. Ah, the more things change....

And man oh man, did you see what the jackpot for both Powerball and Mega Millions got up to last week?