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Betting on ping-pong? Really? The coronavirus is a sports gambler's nightmare
6th April, 11:29I had bet $20 on a man named Oleg to win his ping-pong match, and even from thousands of miles away on my iPhone screen, I could see that he was talking to his paddle. Yelling at it, actually. This did not feel like a very good sign.
The match was taking place somewhere in Moscow, and the room -- with its walls covered from ceiling to floor in blue tarps -- look like someplace the KGB would interrogate prisoners. A stoic judge flipped over numbers on a primitive scoreboard each time a player registered a point. He was the only witness to this thing.
Well, him and me.
"NYET! NYET! NYET!" Oleg screamed, with a few other (I assume) choice words, when he fell behind two sets to one.
I had placed this wager for a few reasons: A) overwhelming boredom; B) because the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement had cleared Russian table tennis as a betting option last week; and C) to scratch a gambling itch that always comes this time of year.
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March and April are supposed to be two of the prime months for sports betting. We have the NCAA Tournament, with its office pools and endless action. We have the Masters, the biggest golf tournament of the year. We have the arrival of the NBA playoffs and the MLB season, a veritable plethora of ways to dispose of your disposable income.
And now, thanks to the coronavirus, all of that was shelved. Sports bettors were left with a handful of unusual options, like Belarusian soccer -- ain't no social distancing in Minsk! -- and, for a while, Australian rules football.
(I lost $5 when I bet that a bloke named Dustin Martin would have the "most disposals" in the Richmond-Carlton match down under without knowing what, exactly, a disposal is. I'm not proud of this.)
New Jersey fought a years-long legal battle for our right to bet on sports, and almost overnight, it became part of our culture. Then, just as abruptly, the sinister virus took it away. That was a minor nuisance for an occasional bettor like me. I would vow never to bet again for even a couple periods of a Devils game at this point.
But for Benny Ricciardi? The stakes are much higher. The Weehawken resident is one of the untold number of people who are professional sports bettors, both with wagers on daily fantasy sports and from his several websites that offer advice and information.
"This is my livelihood," Ricciardi said. Or at least it was. Now? "I'm not going to lie to you, it's definitely a tough time. That's why you have savings, right?"
He figures he would have had $5,000 wagered on each of the first few days of the NCAA Tournament -- "and I'm one of the smaller bettors in our company," he added. His subscribers are left searching for something, anything where they can wager a few bucks, like the few horse-racing tracks around the world that haven't closed.
"Our E-sports blogger is the most popular guy in our company right now," Ricciardi said.
The White House is hopeful that the NFL season will start on time. Medical experts, however, aren't convinced that the coronavirus crisis will have stabilized to the point that 80,000 people can gather in a stadium to watch football. With each passing month, the purse strings get a little tighter for the professionals.
"If there are no sports, we can't change anybody and make money," Ricciardi said. "If we can't make any money, we can't pay anyone. This is what every small business is going through. I'm hoping for the best but bracing for the worst."
In the meantime, I ask Ricciardi if he hasn't any advice for someone who wants to bet a few bucks on Russian ping-pong. He had one tip: Don't do it. "Or hey, if you figure out a system for ping-pong, let me know," he said. "We'll hire you!"
I thought, for a minute, that I might be onto something. Oleg came charging back to beat a guy named Dmitry in his match, a five-set nail biter that -- no lie -- actually had me sitting on the edge of my quarantined couch.
I won $13.89. Whoo hoo!
But then I got greedy. I saw that this Dmitry guy was slated to play in another match and figured, heck, he must be toast. I bet my winnings against him, only to discover that it was a completely different Dmitry, playing in Ukraine.
He won. I lost. But I killed an hour, and when you're locked indoors day after day with no sports to watch, that's a victory in itself.
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