The Blog

Losers' Poker

Cards? Football? Fantasy? Americans will bet on anything these days.

12:00 AM, Oct 28, 2005 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

For a long while after, fantasy football, like its lesser cousin, fantasy baseball, was the province of stat nerds and sports junkies. According to Greg Ambrosius, the editor of Fantasy Sports magazine, in 1989 there were only about one million players. But the Internet made the crunching and disseminating of data easier and allowed leagues to be formed with players across the country. By 2003, there were 15.2 million fantasy participants who had created their own $1.8 billion completely real economy, which included magazines, books and blogs. There's even a national Fantasy Sports Trade Association.

And at the nub of it all is betting: Many fantasy leagues are "free," but the average player spends $120 a year on fees and betting pools connected to the leagues. That's why NFL officials shunned fantasy football for years. But recently they changed their minds--now they release their own "Fantasy Previews"; their Web site has a section devoted to "NFL Fantasy."

The convergence of gambling and sports seems natural enough, since their emotional, if not philosophical, rewards are similar. In a 2002 Washington Post profile of Michael Jordan, reporter Michael Leahy recounted a long evening with the basketball star at the Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticut. The night began with blackjack at 11; by early morning, Jordan was down half a million; by 8 a.m. he was up some $600,000. He left the casino "with arms raised, as if he'd won Game 7 of a playoff series. Chattering. Woofing."

We can't all be Michael Jordan, but we can, from time to time, hit blackjack or draw to an inside straight. For a few bucks, you too can experience the thrill of risk and the joy of victory. Of course, gambling is to actual competition what pornography is to actual sex--which is to say, a debased simulation of a real and powerful thing. But never mind that. America has placed its wager with legalized gaming and, after careful study, decided to double down.

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard and a contributor to the blog Galley Slaves. This article originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal.