Day 430: Rolling The Papal Dice

originally published March 5, 2013

For the better part of a week, Catholics have been popeless, treading helplessly through the murky waters of faith without a leader. And whether you believe that the Pontiff is a God-picked master of the divine, worthy of having the creator of the universe on his speed-dial and fully equipped to steer the Catholic church and its followers along the brightest path to salvation, or whether you think the last guy was just a former Nazi and a rapist-helper, you’ll have to agree, there’s money to be made here.

Gambling on the papal election is not a recent byproduct of our corrupt modern age. It’s actually a tradition that dates back at least five hundred years, probably even further. The only difference now is that you can place your bet on the internet at the same time as you wager on who will win Survivor, or what the next new flavor of Lay’s chips might be (I’ve got twenty-five bucks on ‘Anchovy’).

So why not throw down a few dollars this month?

First of all, the church frowns on gambling. Forget the semantic correlation you could draw between having faith that a talking snake condemned humanity and having faith that you’ll snatch that seven and clinch the inside straight, gambling is still a Christian no-no. Back in the 15th century, the Republic of Venice shut down all bets on the pope’s life. People still took out life insurance policies on the guy though.

This made sense if you owned a business and were owed money by the Pope or someone in his posse. But people were simply taking out insurance policies on the Pope because they figured they’d cash in. This is probably as safe a bet as you can find, since popes are always old guys who are wealthy enough to afford rich, carb-heavy foods. But taking out a life insurance policy on anyone purely for sport is undeniably creepy.

The first documented case of gambling on a papal conclave – which is where the action is right now – occurred in 1503. Roman bookmakers had Cardinal Georges d’Ambrose, French king Louis XII’s buddy, as the longshot. Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini was the odd-on favorite, and he snagged the victory to become Pius III. This was a big win for those who had bet on him, but not a great score for the Church, as Pius III lasted only twenty-six days before he died.

Good news for the bookmakers though – it was like having two Super Bowls within the same month.

By the time the papal enclave of 1549-1550 rolled around, betting was so firmly entrenched, they even had a point-spread system in place. Unfortunately, there was also a solid tradition of insider trading as well, as Cardinals were rumored to be working with their assistants to place bets, knowing how their buddies were going to vote. It was like a production assistant on Survivor passing the winner’s name to his cousin.

Julius III, who wound up winning the election in February, 1550, was not the favorite, nor was the winner even the primary focus of wagers toward the end. This was the longest conclave in history, and as the months dragged on, people became more interested in betting on when (if ever) it would end.

Toward the end of the century, Pope Gregory XIV declared that anyone who gambled on papal elections would be excommunicated, kicked out of the treehouse and told not to return, even if they brought Fizzies and juice.

This rule softened, of course, and by the 1903 conclave, the Italian government was sponsoring a legitimate lottery for citizens to gamble on when Leo XIII would kick the bucket. Had he died a week earlier, the government would have been out another million US dollars.

Five years before Pope John Paul II died, Paddy Power, Ireland’s top bookmaker  began taking wagers on who would succeed him. Savvy bettors who slapped a few hundred pounds on Cardinal Ratzinger at the start of the betting season would have cleaned up with his 12-1 odds. By the time the conclave rolled around in 2005, Ratzinger’s odds were down to 3-1.

This is why I want to make a Super Bowl bet on the Cleveland Browns every year around this time. If by some miracle they pull it off, I’d make a fortune with their odds today.

The $382,000 in bets Paddy Power took in on the ’05 conclave amounted to the largest non-sports betting market in history. Already the action is rolling in for this year’s crop of candidates.

Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana – and yes, he’d be the first black pope… thanks, Obama! – is presently the odds-on favorite at 3-to-1. If you’re looking to scrape a little more change from the collection plate, you might want to try betting on one of the Italians, either Archbishop Angelo Scola or Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, who are both riding 7-to-2 odds. Maybe a black pope is too “out there” for the Catholic church, who are not exactly known for being particularly progressive. This might be the safer bet.

Why not take the longer shot and see if a Canadian might make the holy cut? Cardinal Marc Ouellett, also known as the Quing Of Quebec, or the Sacred Steel-Poutiner, has got himself 9-to-1 odds on making pope.

If you’ve got money that you are simply aching to be rid of, and you don’t feel like mailing it directly to a starving (yet prolific, and inoffensively swarthy) internet writer, toss some cash at the longest odds in the Paddy Power pool, which include atheism proponent Richard Dawkins, whose 666-to-1 odds are probably not coincidental, or Bono, whose odds are a whopping 1000-to-1 against.

Paddy Power refuses to accept wagers on how long the papal enclave will take, because of “taste concerns”.

Since the US Justice Department reversed its hardline stance on internet gambling in 2011, betting on the next pope is not technically illegal in America. You will need to make your wager online though; no Las Vegas sport books are taking money on this race. Gambling may run afoul of your religious teachings, but if you’re Catholic you can simply ask for forgiveness, right? I hear they’re pretty generous with that loophole.

Me, I’m not a gambler. I bet exactly 25 cents every year, with my mother on the Super Bowl. And thanks to the Ravens’ win, I’m up this year. I know enough to walk away with some money in my pocket. As for picking the smart bet, I’d drop down and pray if I were you. May as well look for a tip from someone with inside information.

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