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Gambling on papal elections

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Gregory XVI

Pope Gregory XVI made gambling on papal elections punishable by excommunication.

Gambling on papal elections has at least a 500-year history. Betting on 16th-century papal conclaves are among the first documented examples of gambling on election outcomes.[1] The phenomenon was also observed in the century on the outcomes of secular Italian elections, such as that of the Doge of Venice.[2]

15th century

The Republic of Venice forbade betting on the pope's life in 1419, and canceled bets already made. Life insurance policies were often taken out on the current pope, sometimes as genuine insurance by businessmen owed money by the papacy who feared a change of Pontiff, but also a purely speculative venture. Such policies on the lives of popes and other notable figures were forbidden in Barcelona (1435), and Genoa (1467 and 1494).[3]

16th century

The first recorded example of gambling on the candidate to be selected by a papal election occurs with the papal conclave, September 1503, although Frederic Baumgartner, a historian of papal elections, considers it then already "an old practice".[4]

Discussing the election of Leo X in 1513, it has been stated:

Betting on the outcome of papal elections was quite common and was often handled by the banking houses in Rome which employed sensali, or messengers, to scurry back and forth delevering betting slips. Bettors watched the odds closely ... [5]

Before and during the papal conclave 1549-1550, many Roman bankers offered betting spreads on the papabili (cardinals likely to be elected). According to the Venetian Enrico Dandolo, a witness to the conclave, "it is more than clear that the merchants are very well informed about the state of the poll, and that the cardinals' attendants in Conclave go partners with them in wagers, which thus causes many tens of thousands of crowns to change hands". Dandolo describes an early example of insider trading.[6] Cardinal del Monte (who was eventually elected Julius III) had eventually started out as the favorite at 1 to 5, trailed by Salviati, Ridolfi, and Pole, but Pole was the favorite three days later at 1 to 4.[7] By December 5, Pole's odds had risen to 95 to 100.[7] With the arrival of four additional French cardinals on December 11, Pole's odds fell to 2 to 5.[8] On January 22, the odds quoted against the conclave finishing during January were 9 to 10, against February: 1 to 2, against March: 1 to 5, and never: 1 to 10.[9]

In March 1591, Pope Gregory XVI threatened excommunication against any who wagered on the outcome or length of papal elections (as well as the creation of cardinals),[1] and banned the practice in the Papal States.[10]

19th century

According to a New York Times article following the papal conclave, 1878: "The Italians are all superstitious, and all fond of the lottery. Every great event leads to speculation in numbers. The deaths and advents of the Popes has always given rise to an excessive amount of gambling in the lottery, and today the people of Italy are in a state of excitement that is indescribable. Figures are picked out which have some relation with the life or death of Pius IX. Every day large sums are paid for tickets in the lottery about to be drawn."[11]

20th century

Gambling over the outcomes of the papal conclave, 1903 and papal conclave, 1922 was covered in several newspapers.[1][12] With the 1903 conclave, the Italian government-run lottery offered odds on the pope's death and, had Pope Leo XIII died a week earlier, the government would have lost over $1,000,000.[13]

There was extensive betting in Britain over the elections of Pope John Paul I and Pope John Paul II, and the English Catholic primate, the Archbishop of Westminster felt it necessary to forbid participation by Catholics.

21st century

Paddy Power, Ireland's largest bookmaker, started taking bets on the successor of Pope John Paul II five years before the pontiff's death.[14] British bookmakers such as Pinnacle Sports and William Hill plc also offered such bets, with significantly different odds.[15] Cardinal Ratzinger, the eventual choice of the papal conclave, 2005 as Pope Benedict XVI started out with 12-1 odds, but was a 3-1 favorite at the time of the conclave.[14] Mr. Power, the proprietor of Paddy Power, was evicted from St. Peter's Square by security staff before the start of the 2005 conclave for displaying his betting prices,[14] by what he claims were undercover police officers.[16] Paddy Power alone took over $382,000 in bets on the conclave, making it—according to Mr. Power—"the biggest non-sports betting market of all time".[14] The bookmaker is already offering bets on Benedict XVI's successor—with Cardinal Francis Arinze the 10-1 favorite—although it does not offer bets on the timing of the conclave as "that would be in bad taste".[14]

Gambling on papal conclaves is largely internet based, as most conventional sport books, such as those in Las Vegas, do not accept bets on election outcomes.[17] A handicapper for Bally's and Paris Las Vegas said the casinos refused to accept bets on the election because of "taste" concerns.[18] The practice is illegal in the United States under the Federal Wire Act of 1961.[19] Although Gregory XVI's bull of excommunication has never been rescinded, priests openly gambled on the outcome of the 2005 conclave in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis and a spokesperson for the Catholic League stated "we really don't see much of a problem with it".[20]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Paul W. Rhode and Koleman Strumpf. 2008. "Historical Political Futures Markets: An International Perspective". NBER Working Paper 14377.
  2. Jonathan Walker. 1999. "Gambling and the Venetian Noblemen, c. 1500-1700". Past and Present. No. 162: 28-69.
  3. Clark, 14
  4. Baumgartner, 2003, pp. 88, 250.
  5. Melissa Meriam Bullard, Filippo Strozzi and the Medici, Cambridge Univ. Press (1980), p. 72 n. 36.
  6. Baumgartner, 1985, p. 305.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Baumgartner, 1985, p. 306.
  8. Baumgartner, 1985, p. 308.
  9. Baumgartner, 1985, p. 310.
  10. Noelle Knox. 2005, April 18. "Gamblers bet on who will be chosen as next pope". USA Today.
  11. New York Times. 1878, March 2. "The Death of Pope Pius IX". p. 2.
  12. Atlanta Constitution. 1903, July 11. p. 3; Chicago Tribune. 1903, July 27.p. 4; Los Angeles Times. 1903, August 18. p. 5; Scotsman. 1922, January 24. p. 4; Scotsman. 1922, February 7. p. 5.
  13. New York Times. 1903, July 11. "Pope Leo's Life Slowly Ebbing". p. 2.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 Peter Gould. 2005, April 22. "Bets open on Benedict's successor". BBC News.
  15. Shawn Pogatchnik. 2005, April 18. "Picking the pope a gambler's science at top bookmaker in Ireland". AP.
  16. Frank Delaney. 2005, August 18. "Holy Rollers And Papal Perfectas". New York Times.
  17. Mark Arsenault. 2005, April 15. "Offshore sites let you risk cash, God's wrath on next pope". Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
  18. Don Fernandez. 2005, April 15. "Online and off, bettors pin hopes on a pope". Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
  19. Helen Kennedy. 2005, April 16. "Big Bucks Riding on Red Hats". New York Daily News.
  20. Todd Frankel. 2005, April 20. "Even cathedral staffers played "Pick the Pope"". St. Louis Post-Dispatch.


  • Baumgartner, Frederic J. 1985. "Henry II and the Papal Conclave of 1549." Sixteenth Century Journal. 16, 3: 301–314.
  • Baumgartner, Frederic J. 2003. Behind Locked Doors: A History of Papal Elections. New York: Palgrave.
  • Clark, Geoffrey Wilson; Betting on lives: the culture of life insurance in England, 1695-1775, Manchester University Press ND, 1999, ISBN 0719056756, 9780719056758

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