Book Review: Sports Betting and Bookmaking: An American History

Oct 19th 2016 08:01 pm |

Arne K. Lang, Sports Betting and Bookmaking: An American History, published July 14th 2016.

lang_bookSometimes a book comes along that quickly earns a permanent place on your reference shelf. As followers to this site know, I have a keen interest in the history of horse racing that predated the now ubiquitous presence of the pari-mutuel machine. That is, the era of the on-track bookmaker.

In Arne K. Lang’s new book Sports Betting and Bookmaking: An American History he deftly tells the story of this era from its beginning to its end and how the end of the bookmaking era at racetracks and pool rooms evolved into the current era of sports gambling. Lang, who has published extensively on sports betting and boxing, points to state sanctioned gambling, especially in places like Nevada, and taxes imposed on racetrack wagers after World War II as the prime reasons for the migration of gambling dollars from horse racing to other sports.

Inevitably, a book about gambling in America becomes a political history. You can’t tell the story of wagering without delving into the numerous machinations in which the state had their hand as either a moral or a financial arbiter. Either way, as Lang’s work clearly shows, it is politicians and their minions that drive and dictate the history of bookmaking and gambling on sports in America.

While half of the book centers on horse racing in New York, since it played a primary role in driving sports betting onto the front pages, Lang also shows how the Midwest, primarily Chicago and later Nevada, influenced the history of gambling on sports.

Lang provides a well-designed broad overview of the evolution of sports betting but also maintains a keen eye for interesting details. For example, to push through legal bookmaking in Nevada in the 1950s and later off-track betting facilities in New York City in the 1970s both pieces of legislation prohibited food or drink as a way to prevent loitering. A silly concession but one that must have made such measures more palatable to politicians who only grudgingly approved.

The focus on horse racing and bookmaking in the first half of the book allows it to hold together as a narrative, the second half of the book is less cohesive and diffuses as dictated by the topic. As Las Vegas enters the scene, the story becomes much more complex and less focused. Add the more recent influence of the internet, also covered in the book, and the author is forced to only skim the surface on highly complex sub-topics within his broad and ambitious framework.

If you are interested in the history of American sports, the evolution of bookmaking and gambling is an essential part of that history. Arne K. Lang, has produced a work that can be enjoyed by the casual reader and is destined to become a reference for scholars for many years to come. I am well on my way to wearing out my copy.

Filed in book review,bookmakers,gambling



Leave a Reply