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Here and Now

Recall: Bets are off

August 28, 2003|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

Las Vegas — "What happens here, stays here" is part of the Las Vegas Strip's sexy new advertising campaign. I figured it also meant you could bet on this most bizarre of political seasons in neighboring California.

I wanted to make a clean wager: the recall to win, and Democrat Cruz Bustamante to become California's next governor. I was hoping to get 3-1 odds, and I didn't want to wager online, giving out my credit card to one of those sketchy-seeming, offshore Internet bookmakers.

No, what I wanted was a simple two-bet parlay ticket: $100 on the recall and Bustamante.

Not knowing where to go, I did what I thought you should do in this situation: get into a series of cabs.

The first cab driver told me to try the sports book at the Imperial Palace (it is important to note here that none of the cabbies I asked laughed at my question or found it strange).

The second cabbie suggested the book at Caesars Palace, but I could tell he was only guessing.

A third cabbie pondered the question, then made a call on his cellphone. Back came the answer: the Imperial Palace.

The Imperial Palace is on the Strip, but it is not a nice place. It has a grit to it, a shabby, neglected aura. Also, I walked into the place at 11 on a Monday morning, which is not exactly the most romantic, "Ocean's Eleven" time of the day to strut into a casino.

In the sports book, they were simulcasting the horse races from Saratoga and Delaware Park and a place called Finger Lakes. When I told the guy at the betting counter that I wanted to bet on Cruz Bustamante, I made sure to specify that I was not talking about the third at Finger Lakes but the upcoming election in California.

It was then that I heard something I never imagined hearing in Las Vegas: "That's illegal." The guy at the counter was congenial about it, saying they could only take wagers on activities settled on a field of play. He agreed with me that Bustamante was the right bet, by the way. He suggested I try the sports book over at Bally's, because they did a lot of promotional, "for entertainment purposes only" oddsmaking on events like the Academy Awards.

Bally's is nicer than the Imperial Palace, and sure enough I found pages of "for entertainment purposes only" wagers. There were odds on reality shows, odds on the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards (look out for Johnny Cash, sitting at 15-1 in the best video of the year category).

But the most interesting thing was this: While I could not bet on the recall election, or even get fantasy odds on the recall election, I could make a breathtaking array of for-real wagers on the rookie NBA season of basketball star LeBron James.

Who is LeBron James? He is an 18-year-old superstar athlete from Ohio, drafted No. 1 overall out of high school by the Cleveland Cavaliers.

At Bally's, you can bet on whether James will have a higher scoring average in his first year of pro ball than Michael Jordan had in his, back in 1984-85. You can bet on whether James or Shaquille O'Neal will score more points when the Cavaliers play the Lakers (if you bet on Shaq, however, you have to give 12 points to James before the game even starts).

You can also bet on the most points James will score in any one game this season. The most tempting wager is 0-3 points, where the odds are currently 500-1, but that means you have to root for James to suffer a season-ending injury in his first game, before he scores two baskets.

I understand, basically, why I can bet on the performance of LeBron James but not on the recall.

A Bally's spokesperson essentially gave me the same explanation as the Imperial Palace: Sports are one thing, political races another. Basketball is just a game, while electoral politics is serious business, something that must stay free of the corrupting influence of money, celebrity and personality.

Here in Las Vegas, where "what happens here, stays here," even they seem to know that.

Paul Brownfield can be reached at paul.brownfield@latimes.com.

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