LINCOLN — The state of Rhode Island, once the epicenter of mob-controlled bookmaking operations across New England, made its first foray into legal sports betting on Monday.
The much-hyped launch of Sportsbook at Twin River, the only legal sports betting operation northeast of New York, happened just after 3 p.m. and was firmly embraced by a crowd of gambling sports fans, from 27-year-old Jonathan Bigos of Norwood, Massachusetts, to a couple of locals: House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio.
“Let’s get it on,” Ruggerio said.
Mattiello pulled $20 from his wallet and put it on the Boston Celtics, with a plus-2 spread, over the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday night. He stood to win a maximum possible payout of $38.20.
Ruggerio put his $20 on the Houston Texans over the Tennessee Titans in a contest televised by Monday Night Football.
Bigos, a salesman wearing a Red Sox sweatshirt, came along a while later, making two wagers, one on the Celtics over the Pelicans and the other on the Boston Bruins over the Toronto Maple Leafs.
If both the Celtics and the Bruins won, Bigos could win as much as $296 after ponying up just $60.
One more experienced gambler wearing a Celtics sweatshirt had told a reporter that betting on local teams was a bad idea. Too much emotion.
Bigos offered his reaction to that advice:
“If you’re in a bad area, sure it is,” he said. “If you’re in a good sports area then it’s not so bad.”
Bigos and another local sports fan were enthusiastic about the opportunity to bet on sports without legal worries. Placing bets online is popular, but gamblers say it can take a long time to receive a payout.
On top of that, Bigos said, the check comes from an offshore company. It can raise eyebrows at the bank, he said.
Mike Thomas, a 28-year-old teaching assistant and former college football player from Providence, was eager to make some smart bets on college and professional football.
To him, the payout of a wager on Houston or Tennessee didn’t seem worth the gamble. But he said he really liked the idea of placing a bet and receiving the winnings that day.
Sportsbook requires an upfront cash payment. So anyone who bet $20 on Monday actually had to turn over $40.
Winners have until the expiration date on their ticket to get their money back with the winnings, too.
Sportsbook puts limits on scope of the wager, depending on the particular sport and other factors, but the maximum possible wager in the most lenient situation is no more than $10,000, according to John E. Taylor, Jr., chairman of Twin River’s board of directors.
In advance of the state’s first legal sports bets, dozens of gamblers made their way to the Sportsbook Rhode Island bookmaking desk on the third floor of the casino. By mid-December, Twin River will open an area equipped with comfortable seating, tables and about 100 televisions, said Craig Sculos, vice president and general manager of Twin River Casino, who took reporters on a tour of the 3,600-square-foot space.
Sportsbook will continue to operate in both the parimutuels section where it opened Monday, as well as the soon-to-open viewing facility with food service and other perks. The operation is supported by the state, by Twin River, by Providence-based technology partner IGT and by the long-established bookmaker William Hill.
Sportsbook Rhode Island will start taking bets at Twin Rivers’ Tiverton Hotel Casino in December, according to Twin River spokeswoman Patti Doyle.
“I think there’s a lot of interest in gaming with our citizens,” Mattiello said, “They’re going to get the opportunity to do it legally for the first time.”
Mattiello and Ruggerio joined Sculos for ceremonious banter before the betting.
“I’ve waited 40 years for this,” Ruggerio said, triggering laughs before he described sports betting as “a great revenue generator” for the state that can support “spending money on renovations of the new schools.”
The state projects $11.5 million in new revenue between now and June 30.
“Obviously,” said Ruggerio, “this is a good issue, because from the information I get, 90 percent of the people who wager, wager illegally. So I think this is a great way to capture the money that’s going out illegally and also help us with what we have to do with state government.”
The state’s first legal sports wagers were charitable, with Ruggerio promising to direct the payout to charities. Mattiello chose the Cranston Animal Shelter while Ruggerio selected the Rhode Island Community Food Bank.
The politicians’ high-profile charitable betting was upstaged by Twin River’s pledge to give each of the charities $500 — no matter the outcome.
Mattiello said he had wanted to bet on next Sunday’s game between the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings.
But Sportsbook wasn’t offering that game on Monday because William Hill hadn’t yet established the odds, said Taylor, who also put $20 on the Celtics after earmarking the Rhode Island Chapter of the Red Cross for the payout.
And so on the first night of a new era, the coffers of several Rhode Island charities stood to gain from the play of the Boston Celtics.