As the Back to the Future films illustrate, the main benefit of being able to see into the future is the ability to place rock-solid bets on sporting events. So when Paul the Psychic Octopus correctly predicted seven straight World Cup results from his tank in an aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, my thoughts instantly turned to profit. On Friday, when Paul picked Spain to win tomorrow's final against the Netherlands by eating out of the corresponding plastic box, it was like someone had opened a free money store across the street from my apartment and had begun firing t-shirt cannons outside the store to celebrate its grand opening, only the t-shirt cannons were full of money, and girls in bikinis—also made of money—were beckoning me to take as much as I wanted. I had to bet $50 on Spain.
Online betting seemed like the best option, and this morning I started looking for a clean, well-lighted website on which to place my bet. About.com's gambling section gave the website Intertops five stars. It was, according to About.com's Allen Moody, "a good bet for anybody looking to become involved with the world of online sports gambling or casino gambling." So, Intertops would be the poor bastards I'd rip off with my foolproof psychic octopus knowledge.
Kobe Bryant is the first thing you see on Intertops' website. The fact that Intertop branded themselves with basketball's most famous alleged rapist should have been a sign that this was not going to be as simple as buying a copy of Fleetwood Mac's Rumors on Amazon. But they had this really good logo that said "25 Years" in shiny gold letters, and it said "Trust the first!" right underneath, and the banner image switched between sports-related images at a hypnotizing rate. I was not worried.
In fact I was distracted by thinking of all the things I'd buy with my winnings, so much so that I almost missed the disclaimer at the bottom of the sign-up page: "We kindly ask you to print out all transaction data, the rules of the game, and the payment methods in order to avoid misconceptions and discussions at a later time." Misconceptions? Discussions? This was the vaguely-sinister doublespeak of the Hollywood gangster.
Futher reading of the fine print below the field for credit card information revealed more mysteries:
All transactions will be billed by Ming International Ltd, Vincenti Buildings, 14/19 Strait Street, Valletta VLT 08, Malta, DBA
I Google mapped 14/19 Strait Street, Valetta, Malta; I wanted to see the place in Malta where my credit card information would be processed by a Chinese person. It was a narrow street lined with cobblestones. I could almost make out ancient bloodstains on the walls—could almost hear the muffled cries of pleasure from a nearby whorehouse.
Seemed safe enough. I chose to deposit $50, entered in my Mastercard number and hit "OK." A processing screen appeared for about as long as it would take a one-eyed Maltese orphan to scribble down a credit card number on a piece of paper. Then a confirmation code appeared, along with the instruction to call 1-866-549-WAGER to finalize my registration.
I dialed the number and was surprised when a real woman with a Jamaican accent answered the phone after the first ring. "Can I have your username?" She asked. I told her my username. (Thankfully, I had not made a penis-related username, as I sometimes do.) "I'm sorry," she said," We do not accept Mastercard due to the nature of our business." Had I called an online gambling site or a murder-for-hire service?
"Sorry?" I said. "But says right on your website: 'We Accept Mastercard.'"
"Yes," she said. "For our longtime customers we do, but for new customers we don't. Do you have Visa? We accept Visa, but first we need you to send us some paperwork." Now I was applying for Maltese citizenship or something. I hung up.
Some Googling told me what was up. Thanks to a long history of anti-gambling legislation—starting with the Interstate Wire Act of 1961, and culminating in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006—Internet gambling currently exists in a state of pseudo-legality in the United States. From what I could gather, it is technically legal to bet over the Internet on sporting events, but all financial transactions that would facilitate this betting are illegal. Hence, Malta.
The safe answer to the question regarding the legality of Internet gambling is to say that it is currently illegal, even though that is using a pretty generous interpretation of the law. Still, no arrests have been made in the United States for merely placing bets online
I had almost unwittingly broken the law by trying to bet on a psychic octopus! I put away my credit card and took one final look at the offices of Ming International, Ltd, couched in their dark Maltese alley. Its mysteries would never be known to me now.
You got lucky this time, Ming. Please do not start charging things on my credit card.