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Yeshiva students bet on March Madness

New York, March 30 (JTA) — On April 5, there will be a lot of betting money riding on the NCAA basketball championship — and a portion of it will come from yeshiva high school students. Some school administrators and principals are loathe to admit there is gambling of any kind in yeshiva day schools, but the NCAA tournament and the popularity of poker and blackjack among Jewish teenagers are eating up some weekly allowances and wages from part-time jobs. Their brackets — slots on betting sheets — may be filled in with No. 2 pencils or crumpled inside backpacks with last week’s homework, but high school sports betting pools range from hundred-dollar to thousand-dollar enterprises. It’s estimated that millions of dollars are bet on March Madness — as the NCAA tournament is known — and students at non-Jewish schools obviously participate as well. At Jewish schools, each entrant in an average pool usually pays $10 or less, but the money can add up: The student who wins the March Madness pool at Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, for example, can take home as much as $500, one student said. A graduate of Flatbush High School in Brooklyn recalled the day a friend who was betting on a football game came to school and said, “If I win tonight I can win $2,500.” Betting in school may be forbidden, but Jewish teenagers don’t want to be left out while the rest of the country goes crazy for basketball this March. “Everyone’s into it,” said a 16-year-old at the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, in New York, who bet $10 on Kansas in last year’s tournament and won $180. “It’s exciting, all the upsets and games going on.” That unpredictability works to the advantage of the less sports-literate. “You can make an educated guess and still have as good a shot as winning as someone who follows sports regularly,” said a junior at one Miami-area yeshiva who won his school’s pool as a freshman. “Needless to say, some sports-buff seniors weren’t too happy.” Neither are administrators and teachers. “It’s certainly against the rules,” said Rabbi Mark Gottlieb, principal of the Maimonides school in Brookline, Mass. But, he said, he doesn’t see the NCAA pools as a serious problem. “Kids are passionate about sports at Maimonides and have a lot invested emotionally — but not financially — in the Final Four,” Gottlieb said. Still, gambling is forbidden according to Jewish law, or halachah — and when it’s discovered at Maimonides, it is treated in an educationally appropriate fashion, Gottlieb said. “It’s not cause for dismissal, but an educational opportunity to teach students the value of money and healthy-versus-unhealthy competition,” he said. For kids, March Madness doesn’t seem like a huge infraction. “It’s ridiculous,” said a senior at Maimonides who is organizing this year’s betting pool. “It’s $5 a person. We’re not gambling addicts. Let us have a little fun once a year.” At least one Maimonides teacher might have agreed: She was caught filling out her own bracket in the students’ pool — she promised to give the winnings to charity — until a senior faculty member found out. Most of those betting are male, and students in the Northeast seem more afflicted with March Madness than those in other parts of the country. March Madness isn’t “such a big deal,” said Isaac Meier, 18, a graduate of Shalhevet. “There aren’t as many schools on the West Coast, and usually no California school goes very far.” For Meier and his friends, a nearby casino — where some students enter with fake IDs — is more alluring. In schools where NCAA pools are organized, elaborate systems are put in place. At the Ramaz School in New York — where this year’s winner could take home as much as $600 or $700, according to one junior — the brackets are posted on a Yahoo online forum, which requires user names and passwords. That helps students avoid trouble with administrators: “Gambling is not allowed in this school of any kind. No cards, even without wagering,” said Ira Miller, dean of Ramaz’s Upper School. “School policy is school policy, and we expect students to adhere to school policy.” Students at other schools rely on other tactics to protect their pools. After the “administration tightened the noose on the gambling,” one Maimonides student said, the half-dozen poker players at the school decided not to keep debt sheets, which keep track of losers and the debts they owe. The 15-year-old poker “veteran” said he keeps lists of debts in his head. Administrators do “surprise raids” on kids playing cards in empty classrooms, but if they can’t prove gambling, no one can get punished, he said. It’s serious business for players who may blush if you bring up the subject of girls, but maintain a poker face when holding a straight flush. While March Madness pools strike many as innocuous, poker games may seen less harmless, especially when a 15-year old says he is “$200 up.” The Maimonides player insists it is his love of “the game” that keeps him coming back for more, not the temptation of winning. “I don’t play for the money,” he said, responding the interviewer questions in an AOL instant message. “I have all the money a 15-year-old has any right to have.” Even when Meier, the Shalhevet graduate, went to the casinos, he didn’t consider blackjack stakes of $10 per hand very high. The most he ever bet on a game between friends was $100 and a box of doughnuts. No matter the stakes, the winners are still teenagers, and they spend their earnings accordingly — on items like compact discs and clothing. Still, gambling of any kind begs the question: Where do the kids get the money? Meier — who says he learned to play poker when he was 10 or 11, and bet for candy — earned money from his work as a youth leader at his synagogue. One Boston-based student claims he works as an Internet programmer to pay for his poker games. But most get money from their parents. “These kids were all JAPs,” one Flatbush student said begrudgingly of the high rollers with whom he went to school, using the pejorative term for Jewish American Princesses. “Money was coming to them from every direction.” In any case, it doesn’t seem that a culture of gambling is emerging at yeshiva day schools. When one boy started going to the casino by himself during his senior year, Meier said, the rest of his friends thought he was “a little strange.” And while the Flatbush alum still plays poker with his high school friends once or twice a week — to his mother’s chagrin — he says he is not addicted.