Betting on Oscars and reality TV are no-nos, but what about on the end of the world?

Jackie Gaughan, the previous owner of the El Cortez, stands in front of a board featuring the odds of where pieces of the Skylab satellite would crash to earth. The photograph is on display on the El Cortez Casino floor.

Wynn Las Vegas made national headlines this month for offering real-money odds on who would win the World Series of Poker.

It is the first Nevada casino to take advantage of a recent change in state regulations allowing sports books to accept wagers on nonsporting events as long as they can assure that the betting action is fair to the public. The Wynn isn’t the first Nevada casino to take bets on offbeat events, however.

For a brief period in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a handful of Las Vegas casinos experimented with so-called entertainment bets. That was before regulators, accustomed to turning down such casino requests, enacted a rule in 1985 outlawing all exotic bets on nonsporting events. Here are a few bets that could be had for fun or real money at that time — and some that didn’t make the boards.

Who shot J.R. photo
Associated Press File /

Who shot J.R.?

Bookmaker Sonny Reizner of the now-defunct Castaways casino set real-money odds on which character on the TV series “Dallas” shot J.R. Ewing, the oil baron at the center of a show that set a record for TV viewership. Reizner ended up taking down the bet and refunded wagers at the request of the Gaming Control Board, which had legitimate concerns about fraud.

“There was a huge group of people who knew the outcome (of the show) months in advance of the public,” said Mike Rumbolz, an industry consultant and former Gaming Control Board chairman who helped craft the 1985 regulation outlawing entertainment odds.

Such concerns still hold true today, especially involving the Oscars and reality TV shows — two types of events with mainstream appeal that pose problems for regulators because of the fact that many people may know results beforehand, Rumbolz said.

Academy Awards
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Academy Awards

Jackie Gaughan, a local casino legend and former owner of the El Cortez, was the source of many offbeat proposition bets turned down by regulators over the years, especially future Oscar winners.

“Two things Jackie wanted to do was election results and the Academy Awards. But they always got shot down,” recalls Mike Nolan, general manager of the El Cortez.

Despite the recent move to relax betting regulations, regulators will probably continue to turn down today’s most requested entertainment odds, which include wagers on the Oscars and reality shows, said Peter Gold, general manager of VegasInsider.com, a sports handicapping and gambling information website.

Nevada sports books can’t guarantee that a decision is happening live, while TV show producers aren’t likely to disclose the formula used in the voting to satisfy regulators, Gold said.

Regulators could impose a short betting window to ensure bets come in before voting is completed, said Mike Rumbolz, an industry consultant and former Gaming Control Board chairman. Besides the problem of having regulators and casinos obtain information from event organizers, casinos have historically viewed such efforts as “more hassle than it was worth” given limited overall interest in entertainment odds.

Skylab
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Skylab

In 1979, Gaughan posted betting lines on where pieces of the Skylab satellite would crash to earth. The casino offered real-money wagers on individual states, countries and oceans.

California, for example, was 100 to 1, while bettors could wager on all of the oceans at once for 5-to-1 odds. The payoff on Australia, where the pieces fell, paid 30-to-1.

In a 1987 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Gaughan recalled a gambler who put $2,000 on Russia as well as another who put money on the El Cortez itself, as 10,000-to-1 odds.

Skylab is a bittersweet memory at the El Cortez. It is best remembered by longtime employees as the last time the Control Board allowed an off-the-wall bet for real money.

“After that, they said no more,” Nolan said.

Rapture
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The end of the world

In the late 1970s, the Union Plaza took bets on when the end of the world would arrive — a strange wager that only paid if you died.

Though betting on Armageddon makes little sense, Las Vegas visitors still inquire about such bets from time to time, most recently when California minister Harold Camping predicted the world would end May 21, said John English, senior vice president of business development and public affairs for Nevada bookmakers American Wagering.

While those kinds of bets aren’t in the cards, English said his company, which is being acquired by British bookmakers William Hill PLC, hopes to forward some creative, nonsports-related betting propositions to regulators for approval in the coming years. William Hill is known for taking wagers on elections and pop culture happenings in addition to sports.

“We’re hoping to bring some of the fun back, but we have to be careful about what regulators will allow us to do,” English said.

Oswald
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Lee Harvey Oswald

The coffin containing President John F. Kennedy’s assassin was reopened in 1981 to address concerns that a Soviet double agent rather than Lee Harvey Oswald had killed Kennedy.

The Union Plaza posted a line on who would be found in the exhumed grave — or whether it would be empty. Regulators ordered the casino not to accept bets on the event, which turned out to be anti-climactic for conspiracy theorists.

WSOP Main Event Begins
Steve Marcus

World Series of Poker

For decades, poker players have wagered money among themselves on the outcome of poker’s biggest tournament, the World Series of Poker.

While regulators publicly frowned on such activity, Irish bookmaker Terry Rogers was a fixture at the World Series in the 1980s and was known by many to take bets on tournament winners, said Phil Hevener, a writer for Gaming Today in Las Vegas.

“No one seemed to care about the betting because everyone liked Terry,” he said.

The El Cortez commonly posted just-for-fun odds on the World Series of Poker in those days. In 1980, the casino’s odds on a young Bobby Baldwin and poker legend Doyle Brunson, both past champions and overwhelming favorites, were 8-to-10.

Stu Ungar won that year, becoming the youngest winner of the championship event since Baldwin, now president and CEO of CityCenter, won the tournament in 1978.

Ronald and Donald
associated press file /

No-no bets

In 1987, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Nevada Gaming Control Board had turned down casino requests to accept bets on who President Ronald Reagan would name to replace Chief of Staff Donald Regan and whether TV evangelist Oral Roberts would raise the $8 million he said was needed for God to keep him alive.

Concerns about fraud rather than appropriateness or subject matter always motivated such decisions, former Nevada regulator and industry consultant Mike Rumbolz said.

In general, regulators welcomed the prospect of quirky odds for entertainment purposes only, as it attracted national publicity to the Nevada casino industry, Rumbolz said.

“We never discouraged anyone putting out odds ... it was good PR for the town,” he said.

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