Whenever someone starts talking to me about sports, I pull a yellow card on them. I'm just not interested. If I'm at a restaurant where a game is playing, I've been known to call interference — on my dining experience. Much to my chagrin, the men's NCAA college basketball tournament is all some people talk about during March. Take it downfield, please.
However, my curiosity was piqued recently when one of my colleagues sent the whole staff an invitation to an annual March Madness betting pool among businesses on and around Burlington's Pine Street. How legal are such pools, really? Aren't they a form of gambling?
The invitation addressed that question with an excerpt from Vermont's statutes on betting pools. Short answer: They are legal — but only in specific circumstances.
13 V.S.A. § 2151, which relates to bookmaking, pool selling and off-track wagers, reads, "(a) A person shall not: (1) engage in bookmaking or pool selling, except deer pools or other pools in which all of the monies paid by the participants, as an entry fee or otherwise, are paid out to either the winning participants based on the result of the pool or to a nonprofit organization..."
Simple enough: A third party, such as a bookie or a casino, can't profit from money paid into a pool. That's illegal in Vermont.
But what caught my eye was the specific mention of deer pools, in which the hunters who bag the biggest game get a prize. I've heard an unsubstantiated claim that hunters' lobbying efforts are the reason such pools are legal. Is that true? While we're on the subject, how enthusiastic are Vermonters about deer and other betting pools, anyway?
Deer pools, ranging in size from small to statewide, seem ingrained in Vermont culture. I've seen postings about one of Vermont's biggest pools at the checkouts of several Jolley convenience stores. The grand prize for the tristate chain's 2017 pool was $300, according to rules and regulations on the company's home page, with all proceeds going to the Green Mountain Conservation Camp Endowment Fund. If I hunted, I'd probably participate.
To find out whether hunters played a role in getting the pools legalized, I reached out to the Vermont Department of Liquor and Lottery.
"DLL is not the right entity to address your questions," Jacqueline Posley, legislative and communications liaison for the department, wrote in an email. Strike one.
The Office of Legislative Counsel, which supports Vermont's General Assembly in the drafting and editing of bills and amendments, responded similarly. Its director and chief counsel, Jennifer Carbee, pointed out by email that the statute was amended in 1999 — but the changes were small and didn't introduce deer pools, which were already part of the legislation. Strike two.
When I contacted the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department on April 1, a rep initially thought I was pulling an April Fools' Day prank with my obscure inquiry. After I assured hunter education and outreach specialist Nicole Meier that I was on the level, she, too, declared herself stumped. Strike three.
Meier suggested I reach out to Mike Covey of the Vermont Traditions Coalition. The group of like-minded land use organizations seeks to preserve traditional Vermont culture and practices such as hunting and sugaring.
"As far as I'm aware, [deer] pools have always been legal," Covey said by phone, noting that he's been a hunter for 40 years. "I've never known a time when there were not deer pools." Strike four. (I told you, I don't do sports.)
The relay turned into a marathon. Covey sent me to Bruce Shields, a trustee of the Vermont Forestry Foundation.
Shields couldn't comment on my quest for info on deer pools' connection with the statute, but he did mention that coyote pools have been controversial.
"There were, and are, people who — I don't think I'm exaggerating to say that they are dedicated to eradicating coyotes from the Vermont landscape," he said.
Coyote pools and contests were outlawed in 2018, even though there are currently no limits on the killing of Eastern coyotes. As reported by Seven Days' Kevin McCallum, H.411, a bill that passed the House in February, would require hunters to make use of all the animals they kill — except coyotes.
If Covey was right, I might need a time machine to learn the origin of deer pools. I was ready to take a mulligan on my search — when I got wind of another March Madness bracket. This one is in the Vermont legislature.
"It's basically just all about fun and bragging rights," Rep. James Harrison (R-Chittenden) said by phone. He currently organizes the Statehouse pool, which has run for years and has an adorable $5 buy-in.
This year's pool has approximately 95 participants from the legislature and its staff. Harrison said the winners take half of the pot, and the other half goes to charity. This year's proceeds will benefit humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.
By the time this column goes to press, the men's NCAA tournament will be over. Rep. Mari Cordes (D-Lincoln), whom I reached by phone, was in third place before the final four games, which took place the weekend of April 1. Though she loves to play sports, she said, she doesn't own a TV and would be a "horrible disappointment to my now-deceased mother, who was a huge sports fan.
"For me, [the pool] is a fun way to engage with other legislators in a lighthearted way," she said.
Cordes is also a registered nurse. "Between COVID and nursing and working overtime and dealing with some pretty heavy policy stuff in the Statehouse, this is just a way to build relationships and kind of blow off some steam," she said.
"Life's too short," in Harrison's view, not to infuse some fun into the often dreary world of legislation, or to worry about the implications of betting pools. Especially when, like deer pools, they seem to have existed from time immemorial.
Game, set, match.