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The Jewish Ethicist: The Office Pool

The Jewish Ethicist: The Office Pool

The Jewish sages recognized that bettors tend to be overoptimistic.


Q. Our office has a friendly sports pool, where people bet on games. I am a good picker and a steady winner. My question is, given my advantage, are my winnings fair?

A. Many workplaces have similar friendly betting pools. To the best of my knowledge these pools are legal in most states on the condition that there is no "house" profiting from the winnings of others, and on the condition that winners declare their winnings. A 2008 New York Times article states: "Seth Borden, a partner in the New York law firm of Kreitzman Mortensen & Borden, says that the law in New York is vague, but as long as organizers do not receive money for running the operation, most 'social gambling' is acceptable." In many offices the share of the "house" goes for donuts or other amenities that benefit all.

If we look at the teachings of our sages, we find many statements impugning gambling. For example, the mishna tells us that "a person may make cast lots among his children and household members on the table, as long as he doesn't specifically intend to cast between a large and a small portion – because of gambling". (1) In other words, if there are a number of portions then it is permissible to distribute them by lot, but if the sizes are so unequal that it turns into a kind of lottery it's wrong.

In another place, the mishna tells us that gamblers are disqualified to give testimony in a Jewish court. (2)

However, in each case we find that the Talmudic discussion tempers the categorical condemnation of the mishna. In the passage in Shabbat, it concludes that the prohibition on "gambling" over portions at the table doesn't apply to household members but only to strangers. It seems that to the extent we know the game is completely friendly it is OK.

Likewise, the mishna in Sanhedrin concludes that only professional gamblers are disqualified. One reason given in the Talmudic passage is that professional gamblers tend to be "hustlers", taking advantage of bettors who have unrealistic expectations of their ability to win. The commentators explain that this is particularly true in games of skill where people tend to overestimate their ability. (Popular games for hustlers include games of skill like pool and chess.) Another reason is that professionals have an easy-come, easy-go attitude towards money, like "high rollers", and are not reliable witnesses in court. In my opinion this restriction would apply also to a compulsive gambler, who by definition is not in control of his habit and is not rationally assessing the odds of loss.

Again, in the case of a low-stakes friendly game where everyone is aware of the odds there would not seem to be a problem.

So if I would voice a concern over informed consent in your workplace, it would not be with respect to your colleagues but with respect to you. Given that betting on sporting events is wildly popular and odds are readily available, the chances are slim that you are truly more skillful than your office mates. Remember that in any game someone must end up ahead; that person may be very likely to think that he is the most skillful but in most cases he is just lucky.

So by all means continue to kick in small sums to the office pool to make watching the game more fun, but think twice before you begin to consider it a source of income.

SOURCES: (1) Mishna Shabbat 23:2, Talmud Shabbat 149b. (2) Mishna Sanhedrin 3:3.

September 30, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) SusanE, September 30, 2009 6:17 PM

Bettor be Careful.

Gambling is always bad. When there is money to be made, there is never a fair chance. Do you really think that an organization would lose thousands of dollars to a unknown bettor? It is ALWAYS 'fixed' so the organization profits both from the 'book' and from the 'take'. The 'odds' are always in favor of the bookmaker. If this is an office pool and the writer generally wins, then the odds have been fixed in the writers favor. A simple wager of Blue team wins and Red team loses, the odds can't be easily manuvered. That is why the numbers game is so popular and complicated, and little charts have to be drawn up. The dollars paid from the outcome of the office pool as well as the dollars paid from the outcome of huge numbers is NEVER left to chance. Sports betting on odds is a HUGE scam that is so complicated and compromised even my feeble mind can barely comprehend how it works. It works beautifully. Gamblers should not be in a Jewish court or any other court. Gamblers are easily compromised. ~~~~ If you are a thinking adult, you must know there is no such thing as a 'friendly game'. Have you listened to the young learning to gamble at Hannukah?

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