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College rivalries play out in office pools around country

Friday, March 15, 2002

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Gary "G-Money" Davis is betting on Duke in the office basketball pool. He actually hates Duke, but he figures whatever happens, he wins.

If Duke loses, he gets the pleasure of seeing it. And if Duke goes all the way in the NCAA tournament, Davis -- and not one of those insufferable Duke fans -- wins the pool.

"At least I kept a Duke fan from smiling. Nothing makes me happier than seeing those little blue tears when they've got their faces all painted up rolling down their cheeks," the software salesman and graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says with an evil chuckle.

March Madness is in full swing, and that means office pools.

"If you're not in prison, you know somebody who's pretty much running an office pool," says Doug Castaneda, race and sports supervisor for the Stardust hotel-casino in Las Vegas.

Office pools for money are generally illegal, even in Nevada. But if it's just a $5 or $10 game, and the person running it isn't trying to take a cut, police mostly look the other way.

"I'm sure the chief of police probably is in an office pool somewhere, you know," says Bob Stoll of San Francisco-based Dr. Bob Sports, an online betting information service.

Current figures are hard to come by. But a few years ago, the FBI estimated that more than $2.5 billion was bet illegally on the 63-game men's bracket, on top of the $80 million in legitimate wagers in Nevada.

There are dozens of Internet sites where people can download pool software or even pay someone to run a pool for them.

Espn.com expects 1 million people to enter its men's bracket pool this year for the chance to win a grand prize of $10,000. Intertops.com, an offshore sports betting service in Antigua, says it took 912,000 bets on the men's bracket last year.

But there are still purists out there who like to see their pool foes in person so they can gloat about wins face to face. Davis and his thirty- and forty-something friends are among them.

Their eight-man pool started in 1995, when all of them worked for a software company founded by Kimo Kong. Some of the members have moved on to other jobs, but the pool remains.

"One of the rules is you have to be there; you can't phone in or anything like that," says Duke fan Jason Gurney, a business development specialist. "It's rare that you can get eight guys together to do anything."

The eight gave their pool a name -- Journey to the Tourney -- and have nicknames for each other. Gurney is "The Gurnster." Kong is "Mr. Vegas." Midwesterner Tim Ogren is "Corn." Mike Benkowski is the "Polish Prognosticator."

The eight gather at a bar -- this year it was the MacGregor Ale House in Cary -- and pick numbers out of a hat. That determines the order in which each player picks his teams. Once a team is picked, it is off the table.

When everyone's bracket is complete, Kong takes it upon himself to handicap the choices and e-mail his predications to the others. He spent 18 years in Las Vegas and worked for a casino, so he figures that gives him the right.

"There were some great picks ... some interesting picks ... some questionable picks ... and some stupid picks," Kong writes. "But when the dust settled, Mr. Vegas sees this as a two-horse race to the finish between Big G and the Polish Prognosticator."

The only reason Davis is not betting on UNC is that the Tar Heels are out of the tournament for the first time in 27 years.

The Gurnster says the pool is for entertainment only and winning is "a pride thing." This year, there is the added pleasure of seeing Davis in the awkward position of having to root for Duke, the defending national champion.

"It killed him to do it," Gurney says with a guffaw. "He's very knowledgeable about sports, but when it comes to the Tar Heels, he's so unobjective. He thinks the world revolves around Chapel Hill."

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