Monday, April 18, 2005

DUBLIN — While the cardinals huddle about who should become the next pope, Ireland’s largest bookmaker has been doing a big business that for some gamblers would mean thousands of dollars going up in smoke.

Paddy Power PLC, which often features irreverent gambling opportunities, has been taking bets for the past five years on who will succeed John Paul II. With yesterday’s start to the secretive conclave, gamblers have flocked to the company’s Web site.

“It’s unbelievable. This is the biggest novelty bet we’ve ever run, much bigger than the Oscars,” said Paddy Power, a spokesman for the firm of the same name, in a telephone interview from the outskirts of Vatican City, where his grease-pencil odds board highlights the market dynamics.

Mr. Power said more than 9,000 bets have been made since John Paul’s death, including 1,500 Sunday and about 700 more by midday yesterday, worth a total exceeding $195,000.

Several other Web-based bookies also are listing their own — and often very different — papal odds, including British-based Pinnacle and William Hill.

But Paddy Power offers the most options, with odds for 89 of the 115 cardinals, led by Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria at 3-1, while 14 cardinals at the bottom rate 125-1. A winning $1 bet at 3-1 odds would pay out $4, while 125-1 would return $126.

A few big bets have shifted the odds substantially. Cardinal Arinze surged yesterday from 8-1 after receiving several large bets Sunday, including one for $1,300.

The cardinal he replaced as favorite, Joseph Ratzinger of Germany, saw his odds lengthen yesterday to 5-1, in second place with Jean-Marie Lustiger of France. The odds were current as of noon EDT.

Dionigi Tettamanzi of Italy, the early betting favorite while John Paul was on his deathbed, remained alone in fourth place at 7-1.

Italy’s Cardinal Carlo Martini, who attracted the biggest single bet of $2,600, nonetheless saw his odds slip yesterday to joint fifth place at 8-1. Alongside him was one of the betting market’s rising stars, Claudio Hummes of Brazil, the most populous Catholic nation.

Few Vatican watchers believe Cardinal Lustiger, former archbishop of Paris, has much chance, but Mr. Power linked the heavy betting on him to widespread talk on the Internet of various prophecies predicting a Jewish convert would one day become pope.

Cardinal Lustiger, 78, was born Jewish and converted to Catholicism as a teenager.

The odds on four American cardinals stand at 100-1, but Mr. Power said that may have more to do with the fact that U.S. credit cards — almost alone in the world — are barred for use on gambling sites.

Most bets from Americans were coming through friends with European credit cards, he said.

Power’s advertising odds board in Rome cannot take any cash bets directly. Nonetheless, it has drawn attention from Vatican City security forces.

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