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Is It Legal to Bet on the Oscars at Work?

By Aditi Mukherji, JD | Last updated on

Are you and your colleagues thinking about throwing down some cash by the water cooler to bet on the Oscars?

You might think placing a bet on "12 Years a Slave" for "Best Picture" would be a nice way to cheer on an excellent frontrunner, liven up your work day, and make a few extra bucks.

But is it actually legal to bet on the Oscars at work?

Skill v. Chance

To answer that question, let's look at how state gambling laws are worded.

In general, an element of "chance" is required for a game to violate a state anti-gambling statute. For example, under the "dominant factor test," which many states follow, a game violates a state's anti-gambling law when there's more chance than skill involved.

So is betting on the Oscars a game of skill or chance?

A tongue-and-cheek San Francisco Chronicle article contends that an Oscar pool is a game of neither skill nor chance. The joke, of course, is that the Oscars are rigged and skew in favor of whichever movie or actor has the most buzz, not the most talent or skill *cough* "Silver Linings Playbook"/"American Hustle"/David O. Russell *cough*.

Oscar Office Pools

Regardless of the status of the Oscars, office pools are legal in many states, but there are exceptions.

Ask yourself the following questions to help determine the legality of your Oscar pool:

  • What's your state's definition of gambling? Like poker, an Oscar pool will be treated differently depending on your state's test for what counts as gambling.
  • Does your state allow social gambling? Many casual office pools are legal in states which allow an exception for social gambling. Social gambling is usually defined where the betting takes place in a purely social context -- as in, no bookies. The number of people and amount of money shouldn't get out of hand. Red flags go up as soon as it smells like a business. So in many cases, casual bets with colleagues would qualify under the social gambling exception. But not all states have social gambling laws.
  • Are you following state and federal employment laws? Even if the pool complies with your state gambling laws, employers should make sure such pools don't violate employment laws (including tax laws) and don't get out of hand (which could potentially expose the company to civil suits for things like employment discrimination or even sexual harassment).
  • Is there a company policy against it? If your company has a policy that prohibits office pools, now would be a good time to remind your red carpet-crazed employees about the policy.

Because the law varies significantly state by state, you may want consult an experienced gaming lawyer or an employment law attorney to learn your local law.

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