Sports

The pros of Pro-Line

Big-time gamblers say lotteries are shutting them out of the action

LUKE FISHER March 1 1999
Sports

The pros of Pro-Line

Big-time gamblers say lotteries are shutting them out of the action

LUKE FISHER March 1 1999

The pros of Pro-Line

Sports

Big-time gamblers say lotteries are shutting them out of the action

Standing in front of Parliament Hill two weeks ago in blue jeans, a black ski jacket and a baseball cap pulled low against the cold, Brian LeBlanc did not look like someone who had just struck it rich. In fact, he was downright angry. Since then, LeBlanc and his brother Terry won $1.7 million from the Atlantic Lottery Corp.’s version of Pro-Line, an over-the-counter form of sports wagering, by correctly picking the winners of three NBA games. The windfall was the largest ever paid out by the ALC— the previous high was $22,000. And it was just the latest jackpot for LeBlanc and his brother, full-time gamblers who claim to have won between $5 million and $10 million on Pro-Line since 1992 using their own formula for beating the odds. So what’s LeBlanc’s problem? The 28year-old resident of Aylmer, Que., complains he is being squeezed out of the action by Ontario lottery officials who, he says, are doing everything possible to thwart him. “We use very complex math to calculate probabilities,” he told Maclean’s.

“And we take advantage of the lottery corporation’s mistakes.”

It is every gambler’s dream to find a secret formula for success; it is also every casino’s and every lottery’s nightmare. As a result, when LeBlanc, a talented mathematician, began racking up sizable winnings on Pro-Line in Ottawa, the Ontario Lottery Corp. responded by radically changing the rules governing play. Last June, the OLC reduced the personal betting limit to $100 per day from $5,000, and restricted sales at stores to a maximum of $32,500 per day. Those moves make it especially difficult for LeBlanc and his partner, who wager an average of $200,000 a week. They now have to pay runners to place $100 bets at dozens of stores throughout eastern Ontario.

The formula isn’t foolproof. “Last summer, things didn’t go very well,” LeBlanc admits. “We lost more than we won.” And sports gambling remains a cash cow for provincial governments. Since schemes such as Pro-Line and Over-Under were introduced in Canada in 1990, they have raked in huge sales—$331 million last year alone. Players try to predict the outcome—win, lose or tie—of at least two of the selected

hockey, basketball, football and soccer games according to published odds. Sports fans stand a better chance of outwitting oddsmakers than of winning traditional lotteries, such as Lotto 6/49. The statistics bear that out—since 1992 in Ontario, bettors on various sports-related games have won $786.2 million on wagers totalling $1.3 billion, while the average odds of hitting the 6/49 jackpot are one in 14 million.

Bill Vanveen, the LeBlancs’ lawyer, says the OLC’s policy alterations unfairly target his clients. “These two men work within the rules, so the rules simply get changed,” Vanveen says. “The lottery corporation is making it up as it goes along.” The LeBlancs also

contend that the rules are only being enforced in the Ottawa region. But OLC spokesman Don Pister argues that the games are simply not designed for play by sophisticated gamblers with huge sums to wager. ‘The intention,” says Pister, “is to provide a bit of fun for a couple of bucks.” LeBlanc, who got his first taste of gambling as a boy by accompanying his father to a racetrack in Toronto, won’t say exactly how his mathematical formula works, but he estimates he now reaps an average weekly profit of $20,000. Occasionally, he and Terry spot odds on games that, by their calculations, are dramatically in their favour, such as in 1996 when they won $1.6 million on a series of wagers on a Loto Québec game. Last month, LeBlanc saw the odds the ALC gave on a pair of NBA games that did not take into consideration recent injuries to key players. He flew to Halifax, placed 6,000 $25 bets, and 2,571 proved to be winners. “They had two teams listed as underdogs that should’ve been the favoured,” he explains.

LeBlanc’s heavy betting has been a boon for Ottawa-area retailers, who collect five per cent on all sales. At Bob Sculthorpe’s west-end convenience store, that commission amounted to $40,000 annually under the old rules. Sculthorpe says the new rules are cutting deeply into his profits. “Things are real tight for corner stores,” says Sculthorpe, “and every extra penny counts.” The OLC enforces the rules by threatening to turn off stores’ electronic bet-processing machines if owners exceed customer limits. That happened twice in January to Mansour Raslan, another Ottawa retailer, who told Maclean’s he was being monitored because he was a friend of LeBlanc.

Pister says he sympathizes with store owners. “We’re simply protecting ourselves as any gaming enterprise does,” says Pister. “And the fact is all rules have to be enforced.” But critics say the OLC may have gone too far. AÍ Teshuba, who writes a column for Vancouver-based Winner’s Edge, a weekly newspaper aimed at professional gamblers, admits LeBlanc and his partner have a system and bankroll that are unprecedented. Still, Teshuba argues that the LeBlancs are doing nothing wrong. ‘These guys know how to win,” shrugs Teshuba. “Big deal.”

If he cannot convince OLC officials to raise the personal wagering limit, LeBlanc says he may fight back by publishing his picks. “If things don’t get better for us, things will get worse for the OLC,” warns LeBlanc. ‘We could destroy their game if we wanted to.”

LUKE FISHER