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The Wacky World of Proposition Betting

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Updated January 24, 2013

The Wacky World of Proposition Betting

Super Bowl proposition betting has become big business. As hard as it is to believe, there were literally billions of dollars wagered on Super Bowl XVIII on such things as the coin toss, Bruce Springsteen's set list, and how long it took to perform the national anthem. This year's Super Bowl will be no different.

While the Super Bowl is the pinnacle of proposition betting, it hasn't always been that way. In fact, sports proposition betting probably originated in baseball back in the 1870s. Gambling on baseball was commonplace in those days, as the owners were known to be gamblers who wagered on their teams. That carried over to the spectators, as well, who would often meet in the bleachers directly underneath the "No Gambling" signs and would wager on the outcome of the game, as well if the next batter would reach base, balls and strikes, etc.

Sonny Reizner, the man most often given credit to starting the proposition betting craze in Las Vegas, readily admitted his gambling career began in the bleachers of Fenway Park in the 1930s.

The Proposition Craze Branches Out

In 1960, a gentleman named David Threlfall went to William Hill and wagered 10 British Sterling pounds that a man would set foot on the moon before Jan. 1, 1970. Hill offered 1,000-to-1 odds that such an event would take place, and when Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July of 1969, Threlfall was 10,000 pounds richer.

Unfortunately, Threlfall was killed when he crashed the sports car he bought with his winnings.

In 1979, Jackie Vaughan, owner of the El Cortez Hotel in Las Vegas, drew worldwide attention when he posted odds on where Skylab would land when it crashed. Vaughan offered various odds on different locations, including 10,000-to-1 odds that it would land on the El Cortez. Those who wagered Skylab would land on Australia were rewarded at 30-to-1 odds.

But perhaps the most famous proposition bet of all-time occurred in 1980, when Reizner offered odds on the most important question of the year, "Who shot J.R.?"

Reizner knew he was was in danger with the Nevada Gaming Control Board by offering such a bet, and tried to pass it off as a sports bet by including Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry as a possible suspect, but it didn't work and he was ordered to refund all wagers.

The Gaming Control Board pretty much drew the line afterward, saying only sports-related wagers could be accepted, as Johnny Quinn, sportsbook manager at the Union Plaza found out when he posted odds on whose body would be found in the grave of Lee Harvey Oswald. Odds could be found on whether the grave would contain Oswald, Jack Ruby, a Soviet agent, or nobody. The bet was quickly shut down by the Gaming Control Board.

Several other famous, or infamous tales of proposition bets are floating around, such as the story of William Hill offering a Glaskow postman odds of 20 million-to-1 if Elvis crashed a UFO on top of the Loch Ness Monster.

People can also find some degree of comfort in some proposition bets. When astronomers said there was a 1-in-909,000 possibility that the world will end in 2014 due to being hit by an asteroid, William Hill oddsmakers said those odds were about as likely as Elvis reappearing and marrying Madonna or the Loch Ness Monster being found on the first manned Mars expedition.

Super Bowl Prop Madness Begins

The 1985 Chicago Bears caught the attention of the nation, as a dominating defense, an outspoken quarterback, and a soft-spoken Hall of Fame running back began the season with 12 straight victories before losing its first game of the season.

As the wins began to mount, so did the attention on another player, a huge defensive lineman by the name of William Perry, better known to football fans as "The Refrigerator."

Perry was used in the Bears' backfield on occasion, primarily as a blocking back, but did see the ball on occasion and scored three touchdowns during the regular season.

After the Bears advanced to the Super Bowl, sportsbooks set odds of 20-to-1 that Perry would score a touchdown and a flood of money came in on Perry scoring, despite the fact that Bears coach Mike Ditka said he wouldn't use Perry in the backfield. Perry did indeed score and sportsbooks lost a fortune on that proposition, but the Super Bowl proposition boom was born.

Now, bettors have hundreds of different Super Bowl propositions to choose from. While sportsbooks in Nevada are limited to offering sports bets only, offshore sportsbooks are under no such restrictions and there were bets offered regarding the number of songs Bruce Springsteen would perform at halftime of Super Bowl XVIII, if Springsteen or if any member of the E Street Band would have a "wardrobe malfunction," and countless others.

Jay Kornegay, sportsbook manager of the Las Vegas Hilton, says that more than half of his wagers on the game come in the form of proposition bets. While that figure is no doubt higher than the average sportsbook, if just 10-percent of the money wagered on the game is done through proposition betting, we're talking about $1 billion to $1.2 billion being wagered on props. No matter how you look at it, that's not chump change.

Even if you don't like the point spread or the total on this year's big game, it's a safe bet that you'll be able to find at least one proposition to wager on.

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