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August-01-2002,
Gather `Round Everybody, The Philosopher`s Got Something to Say...By The Philosopher

[If you are interested exclusively in the proposed new forum, that is discussed primarily in the final third of this piece, Sections X-XIII. Here`s a quick summary: Only members of the new forum can post OR read its posts. Virtually anyone with at least 100 posts is welcome in, but to stay in you have to understand that there will be significantly less tolerance for brawling, personal attacks, and the juvenile vega007-type posts that piss so many people off. A certain level of maturity and civility will be expected. On the other hand, frank talk about sportsbooks will be LESS restricted.]

I

I have in my mind an admittedly very fuzzy picture of what I would like in a sportsbook watchdog site-what kind of mission statement it should have, whom it should serve, what its goals should be, what means it should allow itself to use in pursuit of those goals, what principles it should use in running its posting forums, and so on.

I gravitated to Major Wager and became more and more involved with the site because at some level I suppose I felt it was reasonably close to that ideal. Certainly there were individual decisions made that I disagreed with, things I maybe would have done a little differently, things I may have felt the site was lacking, etc., but that`s inevitable. What I`m talking about is Major Wager as a package. I was sufficiently "on the same page" with the bulk of the regulars here, and especially the site owners and the principles by which they seemed to run the site, that I felt comfortable spending a fair amount of time here, picking up information, posting fairly regularly, submitting my reviews and other freelance writings, etc.

Over the course of several months, that gradually changed. I experienced a growing disenchantment with certain aspects of the site and the direction the owners seemed to feel they needed to take it. It wasn`t one huge thing; it was an accumulation of factors that gradually made me feel more and more separated from what was going on here.

One indication of my dissatisfaction is that while I had for a long time routinely recommended Major Wager to people I know who are casual sportsbettors, as of the last few months I pretty much ceased doing so. There was too much I would have to explain away, too much that was frankly embarrassing.

II

Now the logical next step would be to attempt to explain what led me to be dissatisfied with the site, and perhaps to discuss what I believe could be done to improve it. But I`m going to set that aside for a moment and address first the matter of why I have not chosen to simply make a complete and permanent break with Major Wager. Or, to put it more bluntly, "If you don`t like it here, why don`t you just leave?" Well, there are a number of factors that incline me to maintain at least some level of involvement with this site. I will enumerate some of them now.

  • The problems I have with how the site is being run pertain only to certain parts of the site (the posting forums primarily) and not to all of the site. The front page articles, the contests, the insurance program (while it lasted and if it is ever resurrected), the owners` willingness to intercede to help gamblers in slow pay situations, etc. all remain useful, informative, or fun parts of Major Wager. So rather than approach the decision to stay or go as an all or nothing matter, there is always the option of letting go of one or more areas of the site, while continuing to participate in others.

  • More specifically, among the areas of the site that I feel comfortable with and would prefer to continue participating in are precisely those sections that have been pretty much given over to me. This is because my autonomy over those areas of the site has not been infringed.

    To anticipate some of what I`ll discuss below, in my perception the site has drifted farther and farther in the direction of placating the sportsbooks to safeguard the advertising revenue. Yet no pressure has been brought to bear on me to make me a part of that. I do not feel that my contributions have been tainted.

    In all the time I`ve submitted material to this site, I have still never been censored, never been told to suck up to the advertisers. As far as my sportsbook reviews, I have never been told "We need you to review so-and-so next, and make sure you puff them up or we could lose them when their advertising contract runs out," or "We won`t pay you for the such-and-such review unless you change it to make it more unfavorable since they`re now advertising with the Prescription and not us." I`ve never had an article taken down or edited, including when I`ve written things that The Major might have thought were unfairly critical of him. When we finally got a mediation case, I was not told, "Look for a way to rule for the book if possible; we really can`t afford to piss these people off right now."

    For that matter, I`ve never been told what to write or not write in the posting forums. I`ve never been told, "Stop grilling so-and-so from such-and-such sportsbook; we have to take it easy on some of these guys."

    I disagree with the way, in my opinion, certain expression has been stifled, but it`s never been my expression.

    If I care about this industry and about the people who read Major Wager--which I do--it seems to me I can do more good by taking advantage of this opportunity to produce the most informative and unbiased reviews, articles, mediation rulings, etc. I`m able to, than by announcing "This site is flawed; I`m outta here." As long as I can do something constructive with my little corner of the site, I feel I should do so.

  • I have a good relationship with The Major. I value it. I don`t want to fight with him. I don`t want to second guess everything he does. I don`t infer malicious motives on his part when he does something I don`t understand or I disagree with.

    Any arrangements we`ve had as far as my writings and such have been very casual and have been based on trust in both directions. It`s certainly not something I recommend in business dealings in general, but maybe because mine is just a part time gig and started off quite small scale, we`ve never had written contracts, never specified everything in great detail in advance. We don`t haggle about money, we don`t try to dominate each other in negotiations. I trust him to pay me a reasonable amount, and he trusts me to produce things that will be valuable for the site. We don`t play games with each other.

    It`s really very refreshing to do business that way with someone. Certainly it provides no shortage of opportunities to screw the other party if one is so inclined, and the fact that I`ve never gotten burned tells me something about his character. It`s the kind of thing that should be rewarded, not punished.

    So all else being equal, for reasons of my personal regard for The Major, I`d rather be supportive of him and the site.

  • Major Wager isn`t perfect, but I`m aware of no site of its kind that would clearly fit better with what I`m looking for. In principle I support any existing or new site that wants to do the right thing, but there are none I know of to which I`m wanting to "defect." Whatever its flaws, this still seems like the best site. So at least on comparative grounds, that`s a reason to stay.

  • I don`t pretend to know what "works" in business terms for a site like this. Are the things that trouble me things that "have to" be done in order for a site like this to survive? Since my answer is typically a resounding "Maybe," or "I don`t know," it keeps me from being too judgmental.

    It would be nice if whatever vague idea I have of the ideal sportsbook watchdog site happened to be economically viable, but I`m not a closed minded utopian who will dogmatically assert that it is. For all I know, some of the things I`d like to see would be economic suicide for the site.

    Or maybe not. But in any case, whether in terms of ethical principles or business principles or both, I don`t read Major Wager and say, "Ah, what fools! They don`t see they should be doing x instead of y!" My criticisms are always tempered by my humble awareness that in response to the question, "Yeah? So you think you could do better?" I`d have to admit that I`m not sure if I could or not.

    That`s one reason that I approach the idea of running a new forum on the site-which I`ll discuss below-with some trepidation. I can just imagine The Major watching me wrestle with some controversy of whether to ban some obnoxious flamer in the new forum, and rubbing his hands with glee saying, "Not quite as easy as it looks dealing with this bullshit, huh?"

    So I definitely have sympathy for the site owners and the dilemmas they face, even when I disagree with what they do.

  • I get paid to be here. It`s a nice supplement to what I`m able to make gambling. I`m not an independently wealthy person who can make all my decisions with complete indifference as to their effect on my income. We all have to do something to put food on the table. For me and for my values, being associated with Major Wager happens to be less creepy and less morally compromising than at least 99% of the things people do for money. It`s not a gig I`m going to walk away from for less than substantial reasons.
So I just want to make clear, I`m not looking for an excuse to get out of here. I`m not mad at The Major or the posters or anyone else. To the contrary, as noted there are multiple reasons I`m inclined to stay here and try to make constructive contributions, even given the misgivings that I have.

III

OK, so now let me try to articulate as best I can why I find myself troubled by some of what has gone on at Major Wager in recent times.

A lot of what I have to say is very speculative, but it`s just the way I read things.

When a site like this starts out-and I`m talking about a watchdog site that is funded by advertising revenue from sportsbooks-it`s in something of a position of weakness vis-àis the books. It needs them more than they need it.

As the site grows, the balance of power shifts subtly. It becomes important to a sportsbook`s credibility and name recognition to be on the site. (Think of it this way: Early on in the site`s history, someone might post, "Hey Major Wager, if you`re so great how come Olympic and WSEX aren`t on your `Major`s List.`?" Six months later, the same person might be calling a book and saying, "Hey Rio, if you`re a legitimate book I should trust, how come I don`t see you at the top of the page on Major Wager?") In time the books need the endorsement of a popular and credible watchdog site at least as much as the site needs their advertising dollars.

Then you`ve got some breathing room, you`ve got a certain amount of clout. Your calls to sportsbooks get returned. You have a little more leverage to maybe get people paid behind the scenes when there is a dispute. You don`t have to go to the sportsbooks, hat in hand, begging them to advertise with you, and making whatever compromises they demand.

I remember some time ago, SIA wanted to renew their advertising contract, but The Major wasn`t one hundred percent comfortable with them, so he insisted on a customer service improvement as a condition for keeping them on board. They balked, and he stuck to his guns, turning down their renewal. Now that would have been a much tougher thing to do a year earlier when this was a fledgling site needing desperately to expand its list of paying advertisers if it were to survive. But as a site grows in size and prestige and revenue, it gains more of a capacity to be picky and set the conditions.

Actually you can make a case that in the long run a site like this will be more successful if it refuses to sell out even during the early days and during the lean times. JC posted a long time ago on this subject, stating, if memory serves me, that if you run a watchdog site with integrity and do what`s right even when certain books would prefer otherwise, you`ll win over the public and the advertisers will follow. If your credibility as a watchdog makes you the popular place to be for the betting public, there will never be a shortage of books wanting to advertise where the action is.

I think there is at least some truth to that, but even if it is in a watchdog`s enlightened self-interest not to sell out, it`s certainly easier to resist the temptation from a position of strength.

And as of, say, January of this year, Major Wager, and for that matter the offshore industry, seemed fairly strong in that sense. Major Wager could afford to piss off an advertiser here and there, and there seemed to be plenty of books that supported the notion that a strong watchdog site added credibility to the industry as a whole.

IV

Then we entered a period of crisis. I`m aware that that word smacks of sensationalism, but I stand by it. Certainly it was the worst period that I have observed in my years betting offshore.

The biggest blow was the collapse of Sports-Market and its sister book Aces Gold. As Kosar stated: "Never before has a well-respected, well-known, relatively big, both credit and post-up giant of the industry gone under. We have had lesser-knowns, risky to begin with go under and we have had medium/ large, well-respected books get taken over. But never in this combination."

And it wasn`t an isolated case. Soon Camelot and Alladin`s Gold closed up shop and stiffed their customers as well.

Very few of us were left unaffected by this series of blows. Aces Gold was my favorite book of all time, and they took four figures of my money. Countless other players believed in Aces Gold as much as I did, and others felt that way about Camelot or Alladin`s Gold, especially Camelot due to MarkDel`s presence on the posting boards, and as a result we got burned. Our faith was repaid with betrayal, deceit, and thievery.

These were not the only books going under and stiffing their customers. As many or more than the usual number of smaller, obscure, or disreputable books shut down, delivering lesser but still painful blows to the industry and its customers.

Then there were the near misses, including the popular Grand Central and All World. Though they were saved by last second buyouts, their tiptoed journey along the precipice established that their previous ownership not only had squandered their own money, but had criminally squandered our money that we were allowing them to hold for us to ensure that they would be paid if we lost our wagers. And this practice of using the post up funds while hoping for a turnaround or a buyout was, by all accounts, not something unique to the places that failed or that we know almost failed. Evidently it was the norm in the offshore world to do business like this.

The rumors and stories swirled around many, many more books, even those of the highest repute. Some were true, some were false, many contained half-truths, but it was folly to pretend to know in all cases which were which. These books were nearly broke, these others had spread themselves way too thin by acquiring too many other books too fast, these did more gambling than booking and could be wiped out by their risk-taking, these were slow-paying agents and credit players (the canaries in the mine shaft when it comes to bookmaking?), these had reversed transfers to the stiff books so as to stick their customers with the loss, and on and on. From Rio to Pinnacle, from CRIS to Olympic, from Cascade to Sportingbet to Jazz, it seemed every book carried with it at least some reason for concern. To ignore all that was being said because it couldn`t be confirmed or didn`t rise to the level of absolute proof that a shop was going under would have been irresponsible, given what had recently transpired at other books with similarly minimal and ambiguous warning signs.

Many stories came out of this period that had a truly heartbreaking quality to them. I remember Trujillo posting here or at The Prescription that Alladin`s stiff had been the second huge theft he`d suffered from a book, and that he had reached the point where he felt compelled to go down to the Caribbean in person to try to get his money, regardless of the probable futility of that course of action, regardless even of the possible risks to his physical wellbeing of chasing down a very well-connected criminal on his own turf.

A poster I was in contact with had had a peculiar run of luck where his account at one of the stiff books skyrocketed while his other accounts dwindled, and before he could draw down his balance it had vanished into thin air with his bookie. It was a shop and a bookmaker that he had had the utmost confidence in, and now he was shocked and disgusted, and turning to anyone he could think of for help or advice. I know this particular case was one that both The Major and The Devil did everything they could to get him paid or to get some form of attractive bailout offer for him from another book, but in the end the best deal he could get had such a monstrous rollover requirement that it`ll be literally years, perhaps a decade, before he recoups his loss, if he ever does.

For some reason, the poster Unitas sticks with me. I don`t remember if he mentioned what, if any, financial loss he had suffered when these books went under, but there was something touching to me about his bafflement. He is an older gentleman, and from his posts one gathers that he is from a time and from a world where there was a certain expectation of honor on both sides of the counter. I remember the odious MarkDel flattering him and pushing all his buttons by trying to pass himself off as the kind of honorable old school bookmaker that he would respect, and Unitas apparently buying the act and reciprocating the compliments. Then MarkDel and the others of his ilk disappeared into the night with their customer`s money, and Unitas`s subsequent posts had a plaintive quality to them, a sort of "What in the world is happening here? How can people behave this way? Won`t someone step up and do something about this?" that I think spoke for a lot of us.

There was fear in the forums, much discontent and some anger, and a craving for some plan of action that would bring about much needed change in the industry and earn back customer trust.

The specific changes to be sought were often identified only in vague and general terms, and what, if anything, posters at a watchdog site could do to facilitate their coming to pass was no less obscure. But at least some of the illusions were dropping away, and people seemed determined to hold their books up to higher standards than "As long as we haven`t stiffed you yet, just trust us."

Yes, a lot of the posters "got it." Mr White reached his peak as a poster, emphasizing in a series of posts how utterly unacceptable is the practice of bookies using the post up funds that are entrusted to them, and mercilessly dissecting any arguments against this truism. Sportsbank hammered home this point by adopting it into her signature line.

Alysheba88 apologized to Samurai for having accused him of being unfairly critical in his treatment of the books. When The Devil floated a trial balloon to banish Samurai and his contrarian ways, the idea was roundly trashed, with several veteran posters identifying Samurai`s muckraking efforts as the most valuable posts on the site, and even some posters who find him distasteful admitting grudgingly that perhaps his skeptical attitude toward the books and their penchant for lying did serve a purpose after all.

There were worthwhile exchanges about whether we`d be better off with more jurisdictions adopting Australia-style governmental regulations, or instead relying on the market-based solution of "voting with our feet" by moving our accounts to whichever forward-thinking books voluntarily change their practices in ways that prove our funds are safe. There was discussion of bonuses, vig discounts, and non-consensus lines, and whether such phenomena ought be interpreted as warning signs of irresponsible bookmaking. There were debates over whether books should take some collective responsibility for each other in times of trouble, or if "every man for himself" is the more appropriate model.

People were roused. People were talking. People were paying attention. It was a time that called out for action, for leadership.

V

For the most part, though, I don`t think the industry as a whole or we here at Major Wager took advantage of that opportunity for bold action. With certain notable exceptions, what I saw was more "circle the wagons" desperation, and "let`s just wait for this to blow over and count on people`s short memories" cynicism.

First, a couple of the exceptions.

Olympic offered a limited bailout of the customers stiffed by Camelot. They covered the first $2,000 of each player`s balance.

In the forums, it was pointed out (accurately) that the motivation for this was surely not purely altruistic, in that they could expect to recoup at least some of what they were giving away based on player wagering losses while fulfilling the rollover requirement and on general good will, and it was inferred from this by some (ludicrously) that that fact somehow invalidated the bailout or was to Olympic`s discredit. In fact, it was a gesture that was beneficial to the victimized players and to the industry as a whole. That it was in whole or in part motivated by self-interest doesn`t change that. Would that more books sought the very indirect and speculative long term benefits of generating good will and mitigating further damage to the industry`s reputation this way.

In addition, when other major books were maintaining that the Aces Gold debacle was not their concern and certainly not their responsibility to do anything about-and indeed in the perception of some posters even gloating about its collapse-Olympic at least kept the door open to doing something if a reliable database were ever recovered.

Not that Olympic`s hands are clean in all this. For one thing, as I reported at the time, when asked by their customers in January why they had rescinded their transfer arrangements with Sports-Market/Aces Gold, they stated what we now know was a falsehood, that it was due to a personal dispute between the book owners that had nothing to do with concern about either book`s solvency or ability and willingness to meet their financial obligations. This untruth was a factor in my, and no doubt some other people`s, maintaining an account at Aces Gold until it was too late.

Furthermore, one of the factors people pointed to in why so many books were hurting was that they were taking unwise risks gambling with each other instead of sticking to booking, and Olympic has a reputation as a huge gambling book of that kind, just one of the ones that`s good enough or lucky enough to come out on top when they do. (Interestingly, I`ve been told-though I have no first hand knowledge of it-that Olympic has since made a decision not to bet out like that. If so, then that would seem to be another step in the right direction, and a recognition that beating up on competing businesses may not be in one`s long term self-interest if it further erodes public confidence in the industry as a whole.)

So Olympic, in at least some respects, has seemingly avoided the head in the sand approach.

Another example: Major Wager made good on their self-imposed insurance obligation.

The $500 cap meant it was a drop in the bucket for large players, but it enabled small players to recoup 100% of what was stolen from them. And it sent out a message that even if we couldn`t trust the books (only some of the books, granted, but we knew not which, so it might as well have been all of them), Major Wager turned out to be worthy of our trust.

In fact, the Aces Gold insurance commitment was honored in excess. Claims that people could not prove (the majority of which were surely phony) were paid in full.

Could they have weaseled out of it if they had been inclined to? Could this too be dismissed as a case of self-interest masquerading as principle? Well, the insurance program was not written up in any particularly precise way, and there were no meaningful precedents for how to interpret it. It always had a kind of "we`ll make it up as we go along" quality to it. Thus Major Wager could have cited any number of loopholes in order to justify delaying payments considerably, limiting some claims, and denying others entirely. But they did not. The ambiguities were interpreted in the players` favor.

I don`t think they could have gotten out of paying entirely without doing themselves even greater damage in public protest, but I believe they could have gotten away with paying considerably less than they did. That tells me that they were not motivated by selfishness alone, and that they were willing to step up and help in an ugly situation.

But these were, as I say, exceptions. For the most part, the industry has done little if anything to clean up its act, and the watchdog sites, including this one, have not pushed them to do so.

VI

As I say, the customers were roused. They had something more on their minds than Beantime`s latest shenanigans, Eric Dickerson`s assaults on the English language, or who would be next to 1,000 posts for that $200. There was a growing skepticism toward the sportsbooks, a need to vent about the recent collapses, and a desire to discuss and demand suitable changes in the way the books and the watchdog sites do business.

Ideally I would like to have seen Major Wager rise to the challenge and opportunity created by that changed environment. It was a time for leadership, a time to break out of the mode of chumminess and complacency toward the books that is understandable when things are going well, a time to support and constructively channel the anger and skepticism, a time for a soul-searching examination of how a watchdog site`s system of endorsing sportsbooks and providing information about the safety of same could have broken down so badly and at such great cost to those who relied on it.

But alas, the very events that weakened the industry and made people more receptive to critical straight talk about the books caused the books themselves and those financially beholden to them to resist such talk and seek ways to stifle it.

We`ll probably never know how many name books were (are?) teetering on the edge of insolvency, having gone through a substantial amount of our post-up funds and hoping to limp through to another football season. We found out about some for certain, and heard rumors of many others, but surely that is just the tip of the iceberg.

But in any case, the books turned defensive, and Major Wager turned defensive. Again, this is all judged from the outside, but I could only surmise that the books were a lot less apt to focus on the speculative, potential long term benefits to the industry of supporting an honest and critical watchdog site, and instead did what they felt they needed to do to stay above water, calling in their chits and reminding the watchdogs who paid the bills. For if they didn`t stifle the criticisms and avoid additional customer losses of confidence and increased withdrawal requests, there would not be a long term for some of them.

I think Major Wager could have told them "No, we`re going to tell the truth, report all we know about you and your troubles and your business practices that have gotten you into trouble, raise the standards dramatically for who we will and will not endorse, encourage the posters in their newfound healthy skepticism, and let the chips fall where they may." But I don`t think they had the confidence to do that, for this site itself was struggling in its own way just as many of the books were.

The strength, the credibility of this site that I earlier described as increasing gradually was now largely gone. The biggest of the books that collapsed or looked on the verge of collapse were disproportionately Major Wager books, and Major Wager had been a conduit for many of their lies. Major Wager was sending out insurance checks with one hand, while fending off pot shots from angry bettors and gloating rival watchdog sites with the other. When push came to shove, it couldn`t risk throwing in its lot with the consumers and hoping that that would boost the site`s traffic and credibility to where the advertisers would have to come back; instead it joined the books in circling the wagons.

A book poster`s lies were ignored or winked at as an excusable part of doing business; a customer poster was pilloried if caught in a lie. A book was "innocent until proven guilty" with frequent reminders that any allegations that lacked such proof were slanderous rumors that put a business`s livelihood at risk; a customer could be abusively derided as an agenda-driven mover, scalper, scammer, ghost poster etc. on the flimsiest of evidence or just The Major`s intuition. There was a clear sensitivity to the potential damage caused by excessive complaining or uninformed skepticism toward the books; there was no corresponding concern about the potential damage caused by complacency, insufficient skepticism, and knee jerk uninformed praise of books.

"Don`t rock the boat" seemed to be the message, "And maybe we`ll make it through the short term with no more bloodletting-no more `runs` on the books and no more lost advertising revenue."

Under one particular barrage of criticism The Major even petulantly declared that Major Wager is no longer a watchdog site, but an "information" site, and so should not be held to the standards of a watchdog site. A Naderist crusade for sportsbook consumers was clearly not in the offing.

OK, neutrality is a little more disappointing than leadership, but I suppose it`s understandable. And Major Wager at its best has always been more what the posters make it, rather than just what the site owners choose to provide directly. But that meant that if the site owners didn`t want to fulfill the watchdog function themselves, at the very least it was incumbent upon them to get out of the way and let the posters do it.

I felt, though, that back-to-back events in May signaled that this was not going to happen, that Major Wager was not going to be neutral and let posters serve as skeptics and watchdogs.

One of those events was the banning of Samurai. The attempt to ban him by popular vote had failed miserably, and The Major`s maniacal harassment of him to get him to leave voluntarily floundered against Samurai`s stubbornness, but eventually they found a pretense to boot him.

I`m not going to go over again my opinion of whether Samurai was an asset or a detriment to this site, or my beliefs about whether he was treated justly or unjustly while he was here, as that is all a matter of record in numerous of my posts and articles, but suffice to say I think the banning was an atrocious move.

If all that had happened was Samurai`s banning, then as much as I disagree with it I might have been able to overlook it. I might have given The Major a mulligan on that one, as sometimes you just get into such a personality conflict with someone that you cannot coexist, and you have to make a decision. Certainly were I in The Major`s shoes I would have been tempted to boot MarkDel very, very early in his tenure here, and that would have been just as inexplicable and indefensible to a huge number of the posters around here as The Major`s loathing of Samurai is to some of us now.

But it was hard for me just to "agree to disagree" on this one, because it came at almost the exact same time as The Major`s thread on how sweetly we`re now required to treat the thin-skinned bookies. Coming in the context it did, with what was going on in the industry at the time, with the multiple recent stiffs and near stiffs, and with the brazen lying that had gone on by certain books on this very website itself, it was a thread that I found to be genuinely insulting.

How many times does the pattern have to repeat itself?

1. Bookie enters the forum and states something untrue.

2. Samurai or someone else points out that what they said was untrue.

3. Bookie repeats his original claim and/or digs himself in deeper by asserting additional untruths. Sometimes accompanied by knee jerk book supporters defending the bookie as a "stand-up guy," or The Major taking an ad hominem shot at the critical poster.

4. Critical poster responds to the bookie`s lies and to the attempts to deflect attention.

5. Bookie and others grow increasingly angry and berate the critical poster for engaging in a witch hunt and incessantly repeating his accusations that have already been refuted multiple times (when of course they have been refuted zero times).

6. Critical poster sticks to his guns.

7. Bookie storms off with great indignation. Other bookie spectators take it as further evidence of what they have known all along, that books just can`t get a fair shake around here, that it`s foolhardy for a bookie to ever participate in these forums. Other posters grumble along the same lines, lamenting how all the bookies are being driven away.

8. (All too often:) Lying book is discovered to have been in financial trouble all along, and closes shortly after its staged departure from the forums.

And just when people are finally starting to see through this, The Major tells us that from now on we have to treat the bookies more like puppies?!

VII

Added to the misgivings I already had, those two events told me that it was time, at the least, for a vacation from Major Wager.

I could not in good conscience abide by the posting guidelines stated and implied by the site owners. Rather than defy these guidelines, I chose not to post at all.

The path that Major Wager was on was simply not one I could follow. The site had lost significant credibility in my eyes, and apparently in the perception of at least some other regulars as well. And while I am a freelance writer and not an employee of Major Wager, I have still come to be associated closely with this site in a lot of people`s minds, which puts my credibility at stake as well.

I did not post objections or get into a public fight about it, because for one thing I could not say for sure that this path was not a necessary evil to ensure the financial survival of the site. I had no ill will toward The Major-precisely the opposite, as I mentioned above. What if attacking him over the direction he was taking the site turned out to damage the site irreparably and deprive the owners of their livelihood? (I`m not suffering from delusions concerning how much impact my opinion has on people around here; I`m just saying hypothetically what if this very, very, very small factor were the straw that broke the camel`s back because the site was struggling much more than I had any way of knowing?)

Better to just take some time off and decide later whether to come back and in what way.

VIII

In a sense, the "don`t rock the boat" strategy worked. Major Wager survived and still has plenty of advertisers, including several recent additions. Memories of the post-Super Bowl debacles seem to be fading, as posters` rebelliousness and skepticism peter out for lack of nurturing. The Mess Hall is back to Fishhead`s tall tales, "Forum Wars" with other sites, and Sick Gambler`s latest antics, as people eagerly await the football season. There is far less talk of what could be done by or for consumers to bring about changes in the industry to prevent repeats of the recent thefts of our money.

The industry has seemingly done little to earn back consumer confidence. The high bonuses, vig discounts, and non-consensus lines that some commentators speculated were signs of reckless bookmaking, and some predicted would disappear, seem as prevalent as ever. No other jurisdiction has copied the Australian model in providing legitimate sportsbook regulation. The only book I know of that has moved at all in the direction of voluntarily providing proof of sufficient funds to cover all customer accounts is All World, and Rick reports that prospective customers seem uninterested in that and just want to hear about the bonuses. Talk of a loose confederation of the major books to mutually insure each other faded almost as soon as it started.

Business as usual.

On the surface, things have settled down significantly. But I`m not convinced that that is a sign of stability that we should be heartened by.

Business as usual wasn`t good enough before, so we shouldn`t be satisfied with it now. What has changed to warrant our being more confident today than four or five months ago that we will not be stiffed on the gambling money we send to strangers in far off lands? What is Major Wager doing differently to avoid a repeat of the phenomenon of the faithful readers of a watchdog site being the last to know that their sportsbook is broke? Is the decrease in the questions, complaints, accusations, and debate concerning these matters in the Mess Hall evidence that people are now satisfied with how things stand, or is it simply an indication that many of the malcontents who would be inclined to discomfort Major Wager and the books on these matters have been banned or have chosen to leave in disgust due to their impression that such talk is, ironically, not particularly welcome on the watchdog sites?

IX

What could Major Wager have done differently, or what could it do differently in the future, to better fulfill the functions of a watchdog site? I will suggest several possibilities, which The Major and I have discussed in at least a preliminary way:

1. The biggest factor that will inexorably suck a watchdog site toward bias, compromise, and selling out is relying on advertising revenue from sportsbooks. Unfortunately it may also be the factor that is most difficult to change.

In my gut, I am skeptical that other revenue sources are realistic. But it is at least worth considering and worth exploring whether there might be some other businesses who would be willing to buy advertising space on this website (though preferably not touts, who could be as bad as relying on the sportsbooks for advertising). In addition, there is the possibility-also unlikely to fly but worth considering-of having at least parts of the site available only for a fee.

2. We are probably stuck with sportsbook funds or nothing to run the website, but perhaps we could at least reduce the number of advertising books considerably, charging more each since they would now presumably benefit from being part of a more elite Major`s List.

I have never bought the facile allegation that anybody who is willing to pay is accepted as an advertiser here, since there are many counterexamples to any such dismissive claim, but certainly the standards are not as high as they could be. If we were to make the requirements much stricter-looking at factors such as years in operation, absence of credible slow pay or no pay complaints, a method for its customers to verify that their account money is being held in trust, etc.-then a book`s presence on the site would really mean something.

Ideally if the Major`s List were constricted it would retain the books of the highest quality, but even if somehow that didn`t happen and only quantity was affected, I`d still rather see fewer books on the list. All else being equal, it is better to feel pressure to suck up to ten books than forty.

When I see a new book go up on the top of the page, mostly I`m happy because it means the site has more revenue coming in, the owners can make a living, there`s more money to spend on other projects to make the site better, etc. But at the same time, in the back of my mind I`m thinking, "Well, there`s another book that The Major and The Devil will `work with` if they have reason to believe they are in trouble, rather than telling us."

3. I`d like to see some version of the insurance resurrected.

What I love about the insurance is that it creates a pro-consumer bias. If Major Wager succumbs to letting their endorsements be based on who is willing to pay advertising fees rather than on impartiality and accuracy, it only increases their financial risk. They have a reason to be on your side, because if you get stiffed by one of their books, they get stiffed too.

In a case where they acquire evidence that a Major`s List book is in any way shaky, such an incentive structure makes the interests of existing customers and new customers equally important to them. Yes, there`s a reason to do whatever they can-including hushing up the information-to give the book the best chance of keeping new post up money coming in, namely that the book going under will require Major Wager to compensate the existing insured customers. But the flip side of that is that if they avoid dissuading new post-ups like that, some of those new customers will insure their accounts, and now Major Wager is potentially on the hook for more. So rather than encouraging a slant toward the old players or the new, the insurance encourages them to take into account the interests of both in deciding how to proceed.

On the other hand, while the insurance generates a pro-consumer bias, it does not generate a corresponding anti-book bias. For example, Major Wager would have no reason to encourage irresponsible rumor-mongering against a book, since any resulting run on that book that created a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom would mean they`d have to pay off insurance claims from the people who did not get their money out in time.

The details of what the new version of such an insurance program should look like are worth elaborating and discussing, but that`s another whole article in itself, so I will content myself with two quick points here.

Number one, I have suggested that to be realistic there likely needs to be a cap on more than just each individual insurance claim. (Under the old plan, it was $2,000 briefly in the early days, and then $500 for most of its existence.) This still leaves the site too vulnerable to the nightmare meltdown scenario where a great number of the books fall like dominoes until the industry re-stabilizes itself. In that case, this site would have to either renege on its commitments like the stiff bookies themselves, or go hopelessly in debt and probably be unable to sustain the site due to shelling out so much money.

So perhaps there should also be a cap on how much a given person can collect, no matter how many of his books go down (e.g., $1,000 in any calendar year), and maybe an overall cap on how much Major Wager is obligated to pay cumulatively per year, so that if this "pool" is exhausted, only the earliest claims are paid, or the money is somehow divvied up to where each person gets the same fraction of what he would otherwise be entitled to.

Number two, there has to be an upside to Major Wager for doing this. Just as they need the "punishment" of paying out insurance claims if they steer you wrong about a book, they need to reap the "rewards" when they perform their watchdog function well and you are able to wager safely offshore.

So people need to have more confidence in the site because of the existence of the insurance, it has to influence where they choose to play, the books have to realize that it is affecting people`s choices in this way, and the books have to be willing to pay more than they otherwise would to be here for precisely that reason. If Major Wager is to dig into its pockets and lessen your loss during the bad times, they are entitled to additional prosperity during the good times.

It`s plausible that these things would happen, but interestingly enough I don`t think they did the first time around. My understanding is that surprisingly few people even bothered to sign up for the insurance, thus indicating that its existence was not a significant incentive for the average reader, and as far as I know it had little or not impact on how much books were willing to pay to advertise here. Those things would have to change-the insurance plan would have to be "sold" better to both parties-or it would make no sense to bring it back. Major Wager can`t be expected to just insure accounts out of the goodness of their heart.

4. Related to the detrimental effect of advertising pressure on a watchdog site, as much as possible of the site should be shielded from the direct supervision of those who must also deal with and answer to the advertisers.

The owner of a website, or the person to whom he delegates the job of negotiating with potential advertisers, is under obvious pressure to cater to those who pay the bills, which in some cases conflicts with other purposes the website may be intended to serve.

It is standard practice at, say, a newspaper for there to be at least some separation between the writers and editors on the one hand and the ad salesmen on the other. The less autonomous the journalism is, the more potential there is for it to be corrupted.

Of course, in a for-profit enterprise, the autonomy is never complete, so we`re really just talking about degrees of impurity here. But it represents at least an effort to decrease the biasing influence of the advertisers.

At a small operation like Major Wager, it is to be expected that The Major would wear many hats, but by doing so he opens himself up to precisely this kind of conflict of interest. A case can be made that he should either turn over the marketing to someone else with no authority over the content of the site, or he should concentrate on the marketing himself and step back from the day-to-day operation of the site itself.

This principle is in operation with, for example, the sportsbook reviews right now. If a sportsbook calls The Major to complain that they want a more favorable review, or they need to be reviewed next, or they want something deleted from their review, The Major is in a position to say, "I don`t write the reviews. I buy them freelance from The Philosopher. The content is up to him." This is because he made a policy decision that it would be better for the site`s credibility, and hopefully therefore for its long term profitability, if he gave that section over to me rather than hiring an employee to write the reviews to his specifications. In the short run it means that a review or a passage from a review might make his task of selling advertising to a given client a little tougher, but he judged that the benefits of having a section of independent reviews was worth it.

Not that my role is free of all tainting influences. I have financial entanglements with the site and with the sportsbooks that keep me from being 100% independent. I am paid on a freelance basis by Major Wager, and I gamble with numerous offshore sportsbooks and would prefer, all else being equal, that they not have a grudge against me. I try to be as objective as I can, but if someone came along who was equally qualified but who was independently wealthy and had zero incentive to placate the sportsbooks or the site owners, I wouldn`t be able to put up much of an argument against the notion that he is in a better position to be an independent sportsbook reviewer, mediator, etc.

But in any case, the more independent these various functions are, the less temptation there will be to sell out. If the person deciding which sportsbooks are worthy of being on a recommended list, or deciding whether a poster critical of sportsbooks has crossed the line and should be banned, is the same person who just got off the phone trying to sell advertising space to a sportsbook-or, in the case of The Devil, is operating a sportsbook himself--there`s a problem. Not saying he will always or even frequently do the wrong thing, but the lack of independence is an unhealthy situation.

5. In the past, Major Wager has not been particularly forthcoming about telling all that it knows about sportsbooks. For instance, it has held back evidence that a sportsbook is experiencing financial difficulty.

This is not a revelation of wrongdoing or some wild accusation; it`s stated policy.

There are several reasons for this policy. One is that they may have obtained the information on condition that they not repeat it publicly, and they don`t want to violate an obligation of confidentiality. A second is that often such information is bare speculation and rumor, and there is just not a high enough probability that it is true and significant to justify passing it along to the public.

But an important third reason goes beyond the confidentiality or reliability of the information. There is also concern about the consequences to the sportsbook, and its customers with funded accounts. There is fear of a self-fulfilling prophecy, that if news gets out that a book is struggling, then there will be a run of customers seeking to withdraw their funds, and that, combined with the problems that at least might have been solvable before, will bring the shop down.

So the policy, as I understand it, is to decide on a case-by-case basis how much if anything to reveal publicly in situations like this. And the practice has been to err on the side of saying too little rather than too much, to mostly be willing to work with the books-especially if they are advertisers--behind the scenes to give them time to work through their troubles without also having to fend off bad publicity.

I believe this needs to be rethought. I wouldn`t advocate going to the simplistic opposite extreme where every tidbit of information or rumor that comes to the attention of the site owners is immediately passed on to the readers; it still makes sense to look at things on a case-by-case basis. But I would like to see the general trend be toward significantly greater openness, where secrecy is only for exceptional cases.

Clearly this would not be without its costs. As mentioned, revealing problems at a book has the potential to harm the players who already have money there. Also, if it becomes the exception rather than the norm to agree to confidentiality conditions, then some of that otherwise available information will not reach Major Wager.

Perhaps more importantly, refraining from revealing potentially damaging information about a book maintains and even strengthens a relationship with that book. If Major Wager cooperates with them in this area, they may well be more willing to cooperate with Major Wager in others. I`m not just talking about continuing to buy advertising, but also participating in the forums, being amenable to Major Wager`s intervention for a customer when there is a problem, sponsoring contests for Major Wager members, and various other things that can benefit all of us.

But as important as it is to maintain a mutually supportive relationship with books and to show them that this site is not out to "get" them, on balance I believe Major Wager is more in need of bolstering its credibility with the players. Players need their faith restored that this website is on their side and will tell them what it knows about which places are safe and which are questionable, rather than keeping secrets, dancing around the issues, or posting clues for savvy forum veterans to read between the lines.

The secrecy method has failed too many times. Every time a book goes under with minimal warning from Major Wager it looks like either they were stunningly out of the loop for a watchdog, or they withheld relevant information from us. Neither perception is good for the site`s credibility.

6. Theodore Roosevelt famously described the presidency as a "bully pulpit." Major Wager now reaches an impressive number of offshore bettors, from the squarest newbies to long time professionals. Many sportsbooks read the site regularly, including plenty who don`t post and don`t advertise here. The audience is there. This place too could be a bully pulpit to educate people and to influence the industry.

I think there are a lot of topics we could discuss and debate, and changes we could advocate. Some of this could be done with forum threads, but I think more developed essays and reports for the home page would also be appropriate. I do my reviews and articles from the perspective of the consumer, but we could also use more material from an "inside" the industry perspective. In some cases I think it would be worth commissioning paid articles (if I may be so bold as to spend The Major`s money) by members of the Major Wager community. They would more than pay for themselves in the long run through improving the site.

I`ll toss out a few examples off the top of my head:

  • I`d like to see us assign one or more people with a lot more knowledge and background than I have about accounting, banking, finances, etc. to do an investigative report on All World`s putting their post up money in a verifiable trust account. Maybe Taxman and The Actuary, for instance, could look at the documentation All World has provided, talk to the folks at All World, maybe contact Deloitte & Touche, and give us their informed assessment of this. Is this a sham that proves nothing? Does it show that the post up money really is secure? Because if this really establishes what it purports to establish, then this is a big development that is getting far too little attention. We should be praising it and holding it up as an example of what we expect from other books. On the other hand, if it`s just something phony or meaningless, they should be blasted out of the water for it.

  • JC, Reality, The Major and others have argued against high bonuses and other player-friendly policies that are "too good to be true." Might it be time to deliver that message again, with football coming up and newbies to the site choosing where to send their money? What do advocates of that position make of the fact that such policies don`t seem to have died out at all, contrary to some predictions? And it`s also good to hear other perspectives on this, from people who contend that the dangers of big bonuses are overstated.

  • Readers are always interested when bookmakers talk about their craft. A certain portion of MarkDel`s popularity came from his reports about Camelot, where he provided a bookie`s eye view of the world. Perhaps someone from that side of the counter could write a regular column like that (a great opportunity to keep the name of your book in people`s minds). A possible theme would be each week or each month to explain some aspect of the business that beginners or other posters seem to misunderstand or to unjustly resent. For instance, why would a book move the moneyline rather than the pointspread on some games, where some bettors must pay more than -110? Why are some books requiring ID for certain transactions, or eliminating credit cards or other money transfer methods that they used to accept? Why do most books include a rule allowing them to cancel bets on a so-called "bad line"? Why would a book require a player to leave his money in his account for at least 30 days to get a bonus, or institute other bonus-related restrictions? It doesn`t have to be sophisticated stuff that gives away trade secrets or gives scammers ideas; it could just be an educational column about common questions and complaints.

  • The Major will occasionally write a piece giving some background on why he thinks certain types of players are damaging the industry and are poisoning the forums with self-serving agenda-driven posts. But not enough. More often he just attacks individuals as if "everybody knows" what they`re really doing and why it`s objectionable, and I have to think that comes across to many as pointless abuse or irrelevant ad hominem assaults. I`d like to see more background articles by him or others on this subject, calmly explaining in the abstract how certain types of posters have reason to spin things certain ways. That could be educational for those of us with less experience in sportsbetting or in these forums, and I think it would be a lot more valuable than unexplained heat-of-the-moment accusations directed at specific individuals.

  • Most of us are under the impression that Australia provides the most meaningful regulation of sportsbooks of any jurisdiction. How about an article detailing just what it is they do, and whether our post-up money really is safest there? Are all other jurisdictions equally worthless, or do they vary? What about England? Alderney? Are they like Australia, or are they just as toothless as the laissez faire Caribbean jurisdictions?

  • This would likely be an unrealistically ambitious one, but if somehow reliable data were available, I would love for somebody to look at all the stiff books from recent years (with some minimum criteria for size or prominence or whatever) and see what correlations there are with factors that were knowable ahead of time. A lot of stuff we assume just as common sense, like that a six month old book, all else being equal, is more likely to stiff us than a book that has survived for six years, just on the grounds that new businesses in general fail at a disproportionately high rate. But is that educated guess supported by the data? What level of bonuses were the places that stiffed their customers offering? Is it the size of the bonus, or recent sudden increases in the bonus that are correlated with failure; e.g., should we be more concerned with the book that has offered 25% bonuses for years, or the one that always offered 5%-10% until last month it boosted it to 20%? Do most book failures occur in certain months? To what extent are book failures correlated with routinely offering non-consensus lines, accepting wise guy action, booting wise guys, being located in certain jurisdictions, having a new or ghost poster give a cryptic warning about them with no evidence (the kind of post that is routinely derided as horribly irresponsible), or having an active role in the forums? Or are there truly no such correlations, and without access to their financial records we might just as well choose our books by picking names out of a hat?

  • What does this site stand for? Editorials denouncing specific scams or deceptions from either side of the counter and calling for fair play are always relevant. Taking a stand and repeating the call for verifiable trust funds for post-up money is something we should be hammering home no matter how sick the books get of hearing it. Change won`t come if we just ask nicely for something once and then drop it.
7. One change I`d like to see is as much a matter of attitude as anything, and it relates to much of what I`ve said so far. I think the site owners have multiple times been exploited as conduits for lies by certain sportsbooks (as, to a lesser frequency, have I and anyone else who has reported self-serving things told to us by sportsbooks).

The cynical view is that they haven`t been exploited at all, that they were in league with the deceivers. Dismiss me as naï if you will, but I don`t share that view. I have spoken to The Major countless times and now have had the opportunity to meet him in person, and I believe that when he`s passed along encouraging news from books-so-and-so has found a buyer, so-and-so has big enough money behind them that their present problems are not something to worry about, so-and-so is run by an honorable person that we can count on to do the right thing, the rumors about so-and-so are unfounded, so-and-so is just restructuring and not going under, etc.-and it turned out to be false, he got burned the same way we did.

I know I`m getting off the track here, but I just wanted to make a related point. I think there is much that is misleading about The Major`s often belligerent posting style, his tendency to fight fire with fire when he is under attack or perceives that he is, his hotheadedness that I as much as anyone will sometimes find fault with--including in this piece--his not wanting to admit doubts or vulnerabilities if it would give critics or other sites ammunition against him, etc. I think he hates all the negative stuff that has happened in this industry in recent months, and he hates any way this site was used to facilitate any players getting hurt.

I`ve talked to him when he is working overtime intervening to get someone paid in a situation that never hits the forums, and I`ve heard him describe how Aces Gold`s collapse floored him, and I think he cares very much about the interests of the everyday player and he really feels it when someone is stiffed. (As to the Aces Gold matter, I`m not claiming the site owners were unaware of rumors that there were problems at that book. Heck, anyone who read the Shrink`s-quickly retracted-article in January knew there were rumors way before the book actually went under, and even before then those rumors were circulating to a lesser extent and very likely The Major and/or The Devil had heard something of them. But I`d guess there is that level of unconfirmed scuttlebutt about probably a dozen or more books today, so that`s not what I`m referring to. I mean I think they did not know how serious the problems were at Aces Gold, that they believed the post-Super Bowl changes instituted by management were a sincere effort with some realistic chance of success to get back on their feet, and that they were genuinely stunned when the book closed up shop on Black Friday and disappeared.) And when I talk to him on these occasions, it`s never about "Oh woe is me! We paid out such-and-such in insurance claims," or "Who cares who`s getting screwed, as long as the advertisers keep paying us," or "How can we make even more money from this site?" His focus is on influencing the industry in a positive direction and in figuring out ways to do the right thing that won`t bankrupt the site.

Anyway, if I had been lied to as much as he has by Aces Gold management, MarkDel, and various other books, and I had passed along a lot of these claims and taken grief because of it, I`d be furious, and I`d be a lot less inclined to believe or repeat something favorable a book says about itself without additional evidence.

I`d like to see more of such a healthy skepticism manifested in how the site is run. The evidence is clear that, no doubt with a few honorable exceptions, books lie when it is in their self-interest to lie. I would say the exact same thing about the sharps, movers, scalpers, etc. The difference is The Major assumes the worst from the latter and is uninhibited about blasting them, while he still seems to want to protect the former to some extent.

Both groups are capitalists with varying levels of scruples (often minimal) about how they pursue their economic self-interest. Both have track records that should leave us very wary of taking all that they say at face value. Both have agendas. Both include some good people and some scoundrels. If it is somehow excusable for the one group to mislead us with puffery, lies, omissions, ghost posting, and so on and so forth, then it is no less excusable for the other.

The books should not be adversaries of the site, but they also shouldn`t be trusted without earning it. They should be entitled to a presumption of "innocent until proven guilty" and offered a fair opportunity to express their views no more and no less than anyone else. This site has been burned too many times by troubled books lying to the site owners and to the readers. That wasn`t true a year ago, so the attitude and the philosophy of the site should be different from a year ago.

In summary, explore other ways to fund the site, consider reducing the number of advertising books by instituting significantly higher standards, bring back the insurance, compartmentalize the site and delegate authority in ways that water down the corrupting influence of advertising, rethink the practice of protecting books by withholding bad news, commission relevant articles and editorials to educate consumers and advocate on their behalf, and be realistic and frank in recognizing and responding to the fact that all too many books-especially when they are in trouble-have shown that they will deceive us if they believe that doing so is in their self-interest.

X

I have saved for last a discussion of the forums, and of what changes might be desirable there.

The interesting thing about the Mess Hall is how varied it is, and how varied perceptions of it are. No sooner will I be thinking that events in the Mess Hall are confirming my worst impressions of it than suddenly the mood will change for the better and I`ll be wondering what I was griping about. Or no sooner will I be feeling positive about the Mess Hall and the direction the owners are allowing it to take than suddenly we`re back in the middle of "Forum Wars" or some new annoying idiot poster has come along to drag the conversation down to his juvenile level.

Meanwhile, when I`m thinking this is as bad as I`ve ever seen it, other posters are talking about how much improved it is. Or when I`m thinking it`s made an impressive comeback and is making a lot of my criticisms obsolete, along comes a flurry of posts from people fed up with it.

In any case, The Major recently floated to you the idea of having me set up a new forum that would in some sense be more restricted than the Mess Hall. Several people expressed an interest in participating in such a forum, due to their dissatisfaction with what is presently available.

One problem, though, is that people in favor of the idea are probably assuming that it will be the "anti-Mess Hall" in all and only those respects that the Mess Hall is not to their liking. (Similarly, some of those opposed to the idea simply posited the most ludicrous and insulting assumptions of what it would be and what my motivations for expressing an interest in it must be, making it all the more easy to trash.) But in reality it may not be what you want, or what you fear.

So to begin to flesh out the proposal, allow me to first summarize some of what troubles me about the Mess Hall. You may find that we are thinking roughly along the same lines, or your reaction might be, "Oh, I get it. You`ll be setting up something that stifles everything I like about the Mess Hall, and keeps all the stuff I`m trying to get away from."

1. I have mentioned already that my primary reason for removing myself from the Mess Hall was my perception that the site owners had gradually maneuvered it to be a more inhospitable environment for criticisms of sportsbooks, at precisely a time when skepticism was becoming more warranted, and when their decision not to aggressively fulfill the role of watchdog made it all the more imperative for posters to be given the space to do so for themselves.

2. Almost everyone seemed to assume from The Major`s suggestion that we might be starting a new forum that it would differ from the Mess Hall mainly in that it would be more "serious," that there would be less of a kindergarten feel to it.

Certainly there are times when I am turned off by the immaturity level of, say, a vega007, so yes, I would prefer that any new forum I am a part of have less of that nonsense. But I`ve never objected to humor in the Mess Hall, or thought that somehow people should never relax, or never make light-hearted posts. The notion that I would be looking to start a new forum where only long, scholarly, humorless posts are welcome is truly absurd.

But, sure, some of the silliness from the kiddies is a turn-off.

3. The periodic flare-ups of "Forum Wars" invariably leave me wondering why I bothered coming to the site that day. It`s simply embarrassing. I`m not saying as an absolute that there can never be justification for mentioning or criticizing what is going on at another site, but I perceive the bulk of it from both sides as pointless vindictiveness and mud slinging.

Even when the criticisms are true, they invariably come across as biased because of their source. It`s the same thing that causes so called "negative campaigning" to leave such a bad taste in people`s mouths. It`s not that Candidate A`s accusations against Candidate B are necessarily false; it`s that we know they are biased, incomplete, and self-serving because they occur in a context where each is trying to defeat the other by any means necessary. It`s not about truth; it`s about dirty, win-at-all-costs politics, and it makes the accuser look as bad as the accused.

I got out of the habit of going to any other watchdog sites for a long time, but then the more they were talked about and criticized here, the more I tended to go over to them periodically to see what they were up to. I would have never seen or been influenced by these supposedly terrible things they were doing if the people here hadn`t kept harping on them. And I would bet that that is not uncommon, that sometimes all the attacks do is increase the traffic at the enemy site.

I have more respect for a site that concentrates on itself and how it can improve, rather than constantly belittling competitors and comparing itself with them. If The Prescription is keeping people informed and entertained, and getting people paid by their books, then more power to them. If they are not, then ignore them and concentrate on doing the right thing over here.

I`m not going to join in the wars. From my infrequent visits, it seemed like Joe was a decent, reasonable guy when he was running things. I always thought Peep was mostly a good poster, and it seems like he`s bringing a lot of hard work and energy to the place now that he`s employed over there. Shrink stepped up and got me paid a very large sum of money from the Dunes when they still had a relationship with them and this site did not. Their site is not where I choose to spend the bulk of my time, but they are not my enemies.

All the watchdog sites have done good and positive things for the industry and for the players, and they all have done things they should not be proud of. Please don`t ask us to follow all the intricacies of all the controversies and choose sides. Most of us stopped paying attention long ago and are now just disgusted with all parties who are slinging mud.

4. I am also repulsed by the frequent testosterone driven battles between posters.

In some cases, one or both parties is a bully or just a bitter hooligan who is constantly picking fights and doesn`t seem happy unless he is threatening or abusing someone or verbally dominating someone in a round of playing the dozens. Perhaps more troubling, though, is when both parties are posters that have never struck me that way, posters that I have always regarded as positive contributors to the site.

Grandfather vs. Samurai, Buckeye vs. Samurai, Alysheba88 vs. Samurai (uh oh, pattern developing), Scott Landau vs. Conrad I suppose if you want to include the political stuff. Heck, Alysheba88 and Turkoman1963 got into an incomprehensible knockdown drag out affair that has at least temporarily driven Turk from the site. And if you can find a more inoffensive poster than Turk this side of Compy I`d like to know who it is.

Something about this place, or the general phenomenon of people anonymously posting at each other from the safety of their keyboards, can really bring out an ugly belligerent side of some of us.

5. Then of course there`s the ghost posters, the occasional injection of mean-spirited right wing racist or gay-bashing politics, the agenda posts (e.g., insincerely praising or bashing a book to get something out of them or just to damage them), and so on.

I wonder how many good posters have left, how many knowledgeable lurkers never bothered to enter the fray, how many newbies found the atmosphere too inhospitable to stay? As Count Zero commented after some recent moronic antics, "Every day this goes on is a day when any prospective new poster who might add something helpful here checks out this crap and leaves forever."

Now, of course I`m focusing on the imperfections of the Mess Hall, not trying to give a balanced account of all that I like and dislike about it. It`s not my intent to be a gloomy gus; obviously there are a lot of terrific things about being here and a lot of really good quality people. But I`m addressing primarily those who are open to the possibility of opening a new forum, and trying to give them an idea of what I am dissatisfied with about the Mess Hall, so that they can maybe get a better feel for whether they would be interested in joining me in pioneering a new place to hang out.

XI

Some of the less appealing aspects of the Mess Hall are no doubt worth cleaning up, and indeed The Major and I initially discussed how it might be advisable to makeover the Mess Hall. But we both quickly came to the realization that a more promising route would be to set up an adjunct forum. The Mess Hall itself can be tinkered with a little to maybe cut down on some of the incivility (The Major himself cooling it a bit would be a step in the right direction) and playpen stuff, but for the most part I don`t expect it to change dramatically. It will retain its character as a mostly free-for-all area where anyone can post and almost anything goes, with one of the few limits being that The Major will continue to feel a responsibility to the advertisers to stifle what he regards as excessive, agenda-driven bashing of a sportsbook, including unfair badgering of sportsbook representatives who enter the forum.

But in the meantime, we will open up an additional forum for me to run according to a little different vision, the goal of which would be to retain as much as possible of the positive aspects of a forum like the Mess Hall, while hopefully diminishing the elements I identified as objectionable in the preceding section.

XII

I will first lay out what I envision for such a forum. (Keep in mind that none of this is set in stone; this is all very much at the speculative stage.) Then I will discuss how a forum of that kind might be less prone to some of those objectionable aspects of the Mess Hall.

The new forum ("Philo`s Phorum," Total Square calls it; I got a kick out of that) would be accessible only to members. No one else would be able to read it or post in it.

How do you become a member? The first requirement is that you have made at least 100 posts in the regular Major Wager forums.

I won`t enforce this as an absolute. It`s intended to cut down on the ghosts, newbie pranksters, etc. A sportsbook representative would get an exemption. Reality losing his password and having to re-register as "I Bin Bookin" would get an exemption without first having to make 100 posts under his new name. Someone that is known in the industry and that obviously people would want to hear from would get an exemption, regardless of how many, if any, Major Wager posts he had. Etc. It`s not designed to keep out those folks.

Beyond that, I`ll have the discretion to admit or refuse people based on what I`ve seen of their behavior during those 100+ posts, but for the overwhelming majority of posters that will be a rubber stamp. There are maybe a half dozen or so people with 100 or more posts that I would turn away-Beantime, Vega, etc.-but 99% are more than welcome. So this notion that I will be screening people according to IQ, educational background, my "liking" them, etc. is pure poppycock dreamed up by people with overactive imaginations. Nothing remotely like that was ever stated in The Major`s brief presentation of the idea, and nothing remotely like that was ever intended.

It generally won`t be about me and this new forum accepting or rejecting you; it`ll be about you accepting or rejecting the forum. Once you have an idea what I`m trying to accomplish with this forum and what kind of atmosphere I`m aiming for, it`s up to you to decide if it`s something you want to be a part of. If it is, then welcome aboard.

You`ll still have to apply for admission as a formality-rather than just have it set so everybody with 100 or more posts automatically has access to it-as I would like the opportunity to have at least some brief contact with those who think they`d like to give this a try. It doesn`t have to be by phone or E-mail if you are concerned with anonymity issues; it could be as simple as exchanging a couple of Instant Messages. But I`d like to make sure you know what this forum is all about (believe it or not, there are a few people who will not read this entire article), and to get your feedback on what you would like out of it. (This is a make-it-up-as-we-go-along kind of thing, and I`m very amenable to your suggestions.) Again, the idea wouldn`t be so much that I am screening you, as that we`re communicating so that you can make a more informed decision of whether this is some place you want to be. If we communicate, and you come to realize that this new forum doesn`t appeal to you after all, that it sounds like it would cramp your style, then, hey, no hard feelings either way.

I will say that while I will turn down very few people outright, there are some people that I will want to make sure we`re clear that some of what they do in the Mess Hall won`t fly in the new forum. So in that sense, I suppose their admission is "conditional." There are people who seem to spend the bulk of their time fighting and attacking other posters, and while I`m unlikely to say you`re not welcome in here, I will put them on notice that this won`t be a place for macho belligerence.

Or take Railbird. I love the `Bird (which I suppose makes me as nuts as he is), and of course I would want him in the new forum, but I would also make clear that it ain`t the place for the proselytizing.

(Once we get more of a "quorum," I`ll probably turn over the admission decision to the existing members. After the first 60 days, or the first 100 members, or whatever, I may change the procedure to where the members vote on anyone who wants in. I mean, you can look at a person`s 100+ posts as easily as I can, and if you don`t have a problem with him, I`m sure I won`t either.)

As far as the actual content, or what is or is not "allowed" once you`re in there, here`s roughly what I have in mind:

  • I would say all the sports, gambling, or sportsbook type topics that are appropriate in the Mess Hall or the sports forums would be fine here.

  • So that would mean please leave out the Canteen stuff. No debates on politics, religion, current events, etc. There may be some fuzzy borderline areas where sports overlaps with politics and such, like legalized gambling as it relates to libertarianism and "victimless" crimes, or NFL revenue sharing as it relates to socialism versus capitalism, and it`ll be a judgment call on those. If the sports or gambling "hook" is a transparent pretense to smuggle in the politics, or if people are losing their tempers and it`s causing bad blood, I won`t hesitate to pull the plug. For instance, much as I`d love to talk about racial issues as they relate to sports-or just in general for that matter-I have zero confidence that people in an anonymous posting forum can do that without having it deteriorate into something very ugly very quickly, so let`s not even start down that road. If you absolutely must get something off your chest about Middle East politics, Bill Clinton, school prayer, abortion, the Pledge of Allegiance, terrorism, drug policy, etc., there are countless places for you to express yourself, including here on Major Wager, but this new forum isn`t one of them.

  • Discussions and analyses of specific games are fine. If it`s just bare picks, that belongs elsewhere on Major Wager.

  • No tout posts of course. Blatant promotions in general are out of bounds. Again, borderline cases will depend on the specifics. If somebody asks a question about sportsbookreview or Bet2Gamble or some such information site, and their principals happen to be members of the new forum, I`m not going to forbid them to ever discuss their site. Or if someone from a sportsbook wants to tell us about something that`s available at their book, and it`s an actual human being who converses with us and responds to questions and such--rather than the one-way communication of some canned press release type thing--then that`s fine.

  • In general, there will be an expectation of a higher level of civility and common courtesy than is sometimes present in the Mess Hall. I understand that people have disagreements, and people have intense emotions. We don`t have to always be sickeningly, artificially nice to every poster. But I will ask you to show a certain amount of respect for the other members, and not go off on tirades. As Peep says, post to the post and not to the poster.
Before I move on, I want to make an analogy that perhaps will additionally clarify how I envision this new forum differing in style from the Mess Hall.

The Mess Hall is like your neighborhood sports bar. It`s loud, boisterous, chaotic at times. There`s a locker room mentality of male ego-based joshing and competitiveness, mostly good-natured, occasionally not. The conversation tends to be fairly superficial, with a strong dose of mob mentality, going along with the crowd, rah rah for the home team kind of stuff, though there`s nothing preventing a couple of fans from going to a corner table and poring over sports stats and handicapping formulas if they are of a mind to. Most people there enjoy the socializing; it can be a fun place to relax and let off some steam, though you have to deal with the occasional bully or annoying drunk.

The new forum is like an informal sports and gambling discussion group meeting in the evenings at the local community college. It`s not going to be nearly as rowdy as being at a bar, but by the same token it doesn`t have to be something dreadfully dry, humorless, and stuffy. It`s just a roomful of adults with a common interest hanging out and talking about it.

These are simply two different establishments, serving related but not identical purposes. It`s not about the one being "elite" and the other not. With minimal exceptions, they`re both pretty much open to whoever wants to be there. The patrons of each are "self-selected" and the character of the two establishments reflects this. People wanting a certain kind of experience will tend to gravitate to the bar; people wanting a certain other kind of experience will tend to gravitate to the discussion group, and the atmospheres will differ accordingly.

There will also no doubt be overlap between the clientele. Not everyone will choose one or the other; plenty of people are fully capable of functioning in either environment and benefiting from both. Sometimes they just want to hang out at a bar with their friends and cheer for their favorite team on TV, and sometimes they want to get away from the noise and the crowds and be in maybe a more sedate atmosphere where they can talk about gambling a little more deeply without having to worry about someone picking a fight with them or spilling beer on them.

I next want to relate this new forum to the problems of the Mess Hall as enumerated two sections above:

1. I believe the site owners will be significantly less likely to lean on us about talking too frankly about the sportsbooks, including the advertisers, compared to the Mess Hall.

There are a number of reasons for this. One relates to what I spoke of earlier as far as establishing a separation between those with authority over advertising, and those running the journalistic or editorial areas of the site on a day-to-day basis. By putting me in charge of this forum, the owners are making it like the reviews, the mediations, etc.-sections that they theoretically have authority over since they own the site itself, but that in practice they will leave to someone who does not have to explain and justify his actions to advertisers.

But also, chances are there would be fewer posts of the nature that sportsbooks tend to regard as irresponsible and unfair anyway, due to the way I`ve proposed setting up this new forum. So even if we were inclined to censor to protect the financial interests of the books, there would be little occasion to.

Think of it this way. You are a disgruntled employee of SOS. As far as you know it is a very safe place for bettors to have their money. But there`s nothing you`d like better than to stick it to them for the way they fired you just because you didn`t show up for work a few times when you were busy doing drugs. So you decide you`ll post publicly something like "Those in the know are pulling their money out of SOS. They owe big time and there is talk they could go under shortly." No evidence, no detail, just enough so that hopefully people will think, "Yeah, this is probably b.s., but just to be on the safe side, I`m not going to send my money there. Plenty of other books without such rumors where I feel safer."

Now, where will you likely post it? If you post it in the Mess Hall (or The Prescription or other sites), you can post it the same day you register. To post it in the new forum, you first have to make at least a hundred other posts (legitimate enough posts so that it is not obvious you care only about the quantity), and then apply for admission.

In the Mess Hall your post will be seen by all members of Major Wager, plus all the lurkers who visit the website without ever registering. In the new forum, your post will never be seen by most of those people-the large number of unregistered lurkers, the large number of Major Wager members who chose not to apply for admission to the new forum, and the very small number who were rejected for admission. Furthermore, that subset that does see your post will, on average, probably be more savvy about these matters than the typical Mess Hall reader, and so will be more likely to see through what you are doing.

So it will be a much bigger pain in the ass using the new forum to spread your lie, and it will have much less payoff.

I`m sure we will post things that certain books will prefer we didn`t, but in general I do not believe that our greater freedom from censorship will result in unjust damage to honest sportsbooks.

(And, yes, for those wondering, Samurai will be more than welcome in the new forum. He will be reinstated to the site so that he may join us, if he chooses.)

2. As far as the juvenile posts, again you have to think about this in terms of the set up of the new forum. Just to get in the door in the first place, the person has to have made 100 or more posts without making it obvious that he is deranged or just wants to be disruptive.

I think here too the fact that the new forum requires admission not only to post but to read is key. For I am convinced that a fair amount of the objectionable posts made in the Mess Hall are a matter of grandstanding. People know they have an audience, so they carry on and draw attention to themselves.

The new forum won`t be much fun for people like that. There`s not going to be much appeal to finagling your way into a room with the likes of me, Pokerjoe, Count Zero, Alec, MadameX, etc. and making an ass of yourself. No one`s going to take the bait or egg you on.

And if someone does it anyway, maybe out of a perverse desire to be there precisely because it is where he is least wanted, then as soon as I see there is any kind of consensus that he is a detriment to the forum, I boot him. For while we will be less restrictive when it comes to speaking openly and frankly about the sportsbooks and such, we`ll be more restrictive when it comes to retarded teenagers trying to get under people`s skin by making a spectacle of themselves.

Plus, people who are kicked out will really be kicked out. If you`re kicked out of the Mess Hall, you only have to go through the minimal inconvenience of registering under a new name to resume your antics. With the new forum, you`d have to do that, plus those 100+ posts before you`d even be eligible to get back in.

3. As far as the "Forum Wars," I`m not going to have a hard and fast rule that you can`t talk about other watchdog sites. But I doubt we`ll see much of this. The Mess Hall, for similar reasons to what I`ve stated above, is simply better suited to that. You have a wider audience, including visitors from The Prescription who drop by now and again to see what is being said about them. Plus if you goad him at all, you can probably get The Major to go on a rampage, whereas I doubt he`s going to come into the new forum to do that.

4. Nothing is going to completely eliminate the fighting. As long as people have egos, emotions, tempers, testosterone, etc., you have to expect there will be flare ups here and there. But I think the environment of the new forum will tend to diminish such occurrences.

Think again about the sports bar and the discussion group. Both screen minimally if at all for admission, so pretty much anyone who wants in can get in. But in the discussion group you`re not going to see anything like the number of brawls, threats, shouting matches, and so on that you would in a bar. Is it because the discussion group will have some long list of oppressive rules to keep people in line, or will have more effective bouncers? Hardly. It`s just not behavior that`s conventional in that setting. People who choose to join such a group are a lot less likely to be prone to that kind of behavior, and a lot less accepting of it in others.

My goal is not to have some group where I can crack the whip and get people to sit up straight and not chew gum. My goal is to surround myself with people who behave like adults without me or anyone else controlling them.

There`s an interesting phenomenon I`ve come across with these sites. Quite a few times-and you may have experienced this too-I`ll be talking to someone about a poster who can be very rude or abusive or has become very unpopular lately, and the person will say something like, "You know, I`ve actually met him in person, and he`s not at all like his posting persona. He`s a very nice, quiet guy," or "I used to hate that guy, but I`ve E-mailed with him several times now, and he`s totally cool. We get along fine," or "I didn`t even realize how much he`s been pissing people off because I rarely read the forums, but I spend a lot of time in the chat room and he`s one of the nicest guys in there. I never see him fighting with people or anything like that."

There`s something about different environments that can bring out different sides of the very same person. That`s why, even if my perception of someone as a Mess Hall poster is that they seem to be a crude bully, or they always seem to be exchanging insults with someone, I`m still inclined to give them a chance in the new forum. I`m hoping that it`ll be an atmosphere that encourages non-belligerent behavior even in them.

And if not, then I reserve the right to step in. I`m sure there will be borderline cases where to some it`ll seem like too much Mess Hall style brawling is being allowed, and to others it`ll seem like we`re being too squeamish about harmless disagreements, but if people are getting personal and getting insulting, if they`re "posting to the poster" rather than "posting to the post" I`ll put a stop to it sooner than would happen in the Mess Hall.

A lot of times in these fights, I think neither party particularly wants to keep going, but neither wants to be perceived as backing down. Each feels they`re just doing the minimum retaliation necessary in the face of unprovoked attack to preserve their honor. If I step in and stop the fight, they might have to go through the motions of resenting my paternalism, but really they`ll probably be as happy as any of us that they don`t have to sustain the belligerence.

5. As far as the other miscellaneous nonsense, again, I`m sure some of its going to slip in, plus some people will feel I`m being oppressive if I draw the line in such a way that some of their posts get deleted for injecting racism, politics, religion, and non-sports controversies into the forum. But I would hope that people respect what I`m trying to do, even if they disagree with certain specific decisions. Plus, as with the class clown posts and the agenda-driven destructive posts, I would expect we`ll see at least somewhat less of this due to the fact that it`s a smaller, more sophisticated audience, and there`s less incentive to go off on some ideological rant.

It`ll still happen, though. And no doubt we`ll still get our share of players or books making insincere posts that further their financial self-interest with disregard for others.

We aren`t going to change human nature. People, including me, will still do things that occasionally anger or offend you, and you`ll have to deal with it. But I think on the whole, we`ll have a more pleasant, respectful environment with mostly constructive posts.

I know there are a lot of people vehemently opposed to the idea of a new forum. But it`s about choice. It`s not going to be everybody`s cup of tea; it`s not intended to be. But it provides another area of Major Wager where some people might want to spend some time. Our choice to be there doesn`t infringe on your choice not to. No one`s saying we`re better than you, no one`s trying to close down your sports bar, and no one`s saying your wanting to be in the sports bar makes you unfit for us to rub shoulders with. In fact, we`ve all spent time at the sports bar ourselves, we like the sports bar, and we want the sports bar to stay in business.

Please put down your torches and pitch forks and don`t burn down the community college.

XIII

Already there`s reason to be hopeful about many of the things I`ve talked about. The Major is solidly behind this idea for a new forum, for instance, so I`m confident that we will indeed be given a more than fair chance to get that off the ground.

I was pleased to see just in the last few days that when accusations or concerns were raised about two books-Jazz and Royal, both of excellent repute, one an advertiser and one not-the discussions were allowed to proceed. The threads were not deleted; there was no heavy-handed effort to prevent people from offending books, no blistering attacks on people for raising doubts without providing definitive proof that people have already been stiffed.

I like a lot of what I`ve seen in the Mess Hall lately. I have to say JC in particular has impressed me with many of his posts. He has shown an admirable propensity to call sportsbooks on their bullshit, to urge the watchdog sites to apply higher standards to the books, and to explain and defend his ideas about the industry, both the popular and unpopular ones. Some people will dismiss him as simply trying to talk down competitors of his former book WSEX, and indeed his position as a former book owner does give him an incentive to be slanted. But that means that he needs to be even more scrupulous than most in making sure his critical posts consist of evidence and sound reasoning rather than bias and abusive rhetoric, and I believe he has done exactly that. Some of his posts that I`ve seen lately could serve as a model for what we need more of on this site.

On several fronts, the site owners seem already to be moving Major Wager in a direction consistent with most of the suggestions for improvement I listed above. Seeing these developments, coupled with my finally meeting face-to-face with The Major, has made me feel more optimistic about the quality of this site in the future, and I`m feeling some of my pride in being associated with it returning.

I want to close by reiterating that being pro-consumer is not equivalent to being anti-business, or in this case, anti-sportsbook.

As things stand now, this site-mostly by bad luck, but arguably at least partly by accepting too many advertisers, trusting them too much, and protecting them too much-has absorbed significant blows to its credibility by having several of its endorsed sportsbooks collapse or nearly collapse. As a result, the Major`s List means a lot less to people. They justifiably have less confidence that the mere presence of a book at the top of the page gives them much assurance that it is safe for them to play at that book.

In the end, how is that pro-book? How do advertisers benefit from that?

If I were an advertising book, I would want the Major`s List to be as credible as possible. I would want this site to have the reputation of ferreting out the truth and revealing it, of endorsing only the cream of the crop books, of being the best friend the sportsbook consumer could ever have.

If I ran a sound book, I`d want a watchdog site to reveal all it knows about shaky business practices in the industry, because then books like mine that do not engage in them would look all the better. If I ran Canbet, Darwin, Sportingbet, All World, etc., I`d love to see a watchdog site keeping the issue of verifiable safeguards for player funds in the forefront of customers` minds. It can only help my book for people to care about that as a big factor in where they send their money.

Being pro-consumer ends up meaning being pro-GOOD book practices and anti-BAD book practices. It isn`t anti-book.

Let`s do it right, and thereby earn the confidence of the betting public, and trust that that is the kind of site the best sportsbooks will want to be associated with.



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