When Does a Bet Become Gambling?

The bar in the sports book at Caesars Palace, May 19, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The bar in the sports book at Caesars Palace, May 19, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  George Rose / Getty Images

Sports gambling is a multibillion-dollar industry conducted both legally and illegally throughout the country. But what defines gambling is somehow still in the air thanks to daily fantasy sports brands like DraftKings and FanDuel, which are bracing for a series of court battles that will significantly impact their ability to do business in the United States as we try to draw the line between a "game of skill" and blind luck. By our definition, to gamble is to place a bet — could be money or something else of value or significance — on the outcome of something that is beyond your control. You know, like a football game.

As such, there are varying degrees of how serious these wagers can be. From the relatively harmless NCAA Tournament office pool, all the way up to betting your mortgage on the Matt Cassel–era Cowboys as a Russian with a scar on his cheek watches you from across the room, here are the 10 levels of sports gambling:


Level 1: The Gentleman's Wager
There's nothing at stake except pride and the currency of being right. No money or anything of value need change hands. Handshakes and a good ribbing are the hallmarks. 

Level 2: The College Wager
Like the gentleman's wager but with just a little more skin in the game. Maybe you have to wear your hated rival's jersey to class, stand up on a table and make an ass out of yourself, use a pickup line on a girl in the bar, or buy a round of drinks. It's a fun way to keep things interesting, but only as much as a sophomore German Studies major can afford. 

Level 3: The Politician's Bet
Every year, two politicians, usually the mayors of cities playing in the Super Bowl, bet some local delicacy on the outcome. Think: Chicago deep dish pizzas or Maryland crab or Philadelphia cheesesteaks. Actually, forget the steaks, because that would mean Philly is actually playing for a championship, and that rarely happens. This is a relatively harmless wager, and there really isn't much at stake for those involved. It's a photo opportunity.

Level 4: The Office Pool
The confluence of wagering both pride and money on an athletic event, like the office NCAA hoops pool or the Super Bowl squares, is technically illegal, but federal agents aren't going to raid the copy room when you're running off brackets. This falls squarely into the "jaywalking" side of sports betting. Yes, someone is harboring an envelope of money in their desk, but if mom is filling out the sheet, we're pretty sure it's okay. Also, mom will probably win just by picking her favorite colors. 


Level 5: Fantasy Leagues
This is where the line between games of skill and games of chance begins to blur. You are the GM of an imaginary football team in a league made up of your friends, brothers, cousins, and that random twelfth guy no one really knows. You do miles of research, draft a team, and do your best to set up your roster each week. But once your lineup locks and the games start, control goes out the window. Whatever skill you have won't stop your top running back's knee from twisting the wrong way in a pile up. Still, though, you pay a league entry fee, which is essentially a bet, to win a portion of the money at the end of the season. 

Level 6: Horse Racing
The stakes are still relatively low, and while there may be a population of degenerate old dudes who waste their lives at the track, outcomes are basically random, unless you devote an unhealthy amount of time reading The Morning Line and talking to jockeys and trainers. It's a novelty for everyone else, most of whom know more about seersucker, big hats, and mint juleps than they do about any horse at the gate (save for the regurgitation-of-facts read that morning). But still, hit the right combination of finishers, and you can turn your dollar into hundreds or even thousands at the window.

Level 7: Online Gambling
Sure, you're not a real "gambler." You don't drive to Vegas on the weekends to hole up at the closest sports book, but you found a workaround online and enjoy the thrill of having money on a game, listen to Bill Simmons and Cousin Sal read the NFL lines each Monday, and constantly check your phone during your daughter's soccer game, swearing when a failed two-point conversion screws your over/under. You lose more than you win, but it's not a daily or even weekly thing. You follow hot tips, lay down a little money when it makes sense, but it's not like you have the app on your phone. Although it would make things easier… 

Level 8: Daily Fantasy Sports
A shorter, more intense high, DFS compresses the energy of season-long fantasy into a single day. Long-term injuries or unforeseen challenges like Andrew Luck and Peyton Manning sucking this season are taken out of the equation. Tomorrow's a new day. You pay an entry fee, which entitles you to win a piece of a great big pool of money. Also, the operators keep 10 percent off the top, like a casino's with poker tables. So despite what the owners of DraftKings and FanDuel will tell you, this is absolutely gambling. 

Level 9: Sports Books
It's a room of men in 1990s football jerseys legally wagering on every aspect of a sporting event, from the coin flip to the final score. This is also a very lucrative industry with odds set by professional gamblers that feeds on the addictive nature that comes with the euphoria of placing a big bet and winning a ton of money. While some pro leagues like the NFL attempt to distance themselves as far from sports betting as they can, injury reports are generated by teams like clockwork throughout the season, and daily betting odds have been printed in newspapers for years. New Jersey has tried and failed to legalize sports betting, while leagues like the NBA have embraced gambling as an inevitability.

Level 10: Bookies
While Vegas sports books are regulated, and consumer protection measures are in place that keep the industry honest, bookies take bets far from the light of day. The street tough taking cash from neighborhood guys in the back of the bar still exists (and god help them if they don't pay up in time), but technology has offered more sophisticated, civilized systems in recent years. Still, welchers are still welchers, and lots of people have gotten themselves into lots of trouble getting in over their heads. Instead of putting a lien on your property if you can't pay, some bookies have much more blunt ways of evening up.