Offshore sportsbooks started taking bets on the "Jeopardy! Greatest of All Time" tournament in November, shortly after the game show announced that three legendary champions would face off in a prime-time TV event to air in January.
The odds were up for a month before betting was suddenly halted.
Three weeks ago, in the days after the GOAT tournament was taped, a flurry of bets showed up on one contestant, who we'll call Contestant X to avoid spoiling the outcome. Bookmakers on the receiving end of those bets are convinced there was a leak.
The bets on Contestant X could be winners or losers, sharp (pro) or square (public); we don't know either way. All we know for sure is that in mid-December, savvy bettors, armed with what they believed was the inside scoop, unleashed enough bets on Contestant X that multiple sportsbooks decided to take the odds off the board.
Welcome to the wild world of novelty betting, where leaks and nonsense rumors fuel a low-stakes, international market that produces more wild stories than massive scores. It's a world that, for the most part, state regulators require U.S. bookmakers to avoid.
Taking bets on prerecorded, rehearsed or scripted events is unsurprisingly risky, because some folks will know the outcome before others.
"When a result comes across, we all like to know it at the same time," John Avello, a veteran Las Vegas oddsmaker now with DraftKings, said. "That's kind of important to betting."
Some offshore bookmakers, however, are undeterred and offer action on anything from "Game of Thrones" character deaths to Super Bowl halftime performances to predetermined WWE events. No matter how few people actually are in the loop, the betting market normally finds out what happens.
That would appear to be the case with the GOAT tournament, which taped in December but won't air until this week beginning Tuesday. The multi-episode tournament features "Jeopardy!" legends Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer. The first contestant to win three games earns the title of GOAT and the $1 million prize.
Taping of the GOAT tournament began Dec. 10 and lasted at least a couple of days. A week later, word of the alleged winner began to spread in the betting community. Bookmakers say that's when some customers began betting as if they knew who had won.
On Dec. 19, prominent offshore sportsbook Pinnacle took two $500-limit bets on Contestant X from the same account. The next day, three more max bets on Contestant X were placed from the same account, and Pinnacle took the odds off the board.
"I'm pretty sure at this stage that [the bettor] knew what was happening," Marco Blume, trading director for Pinnacle, told ESPN.
On Dec. 23, a representative from Panama-based BetOnline.com tweeted that the sportsbook was closing the market on the GOAT tournament. "Some irregular betting patterns coming in. Stay tuned," BetOnline chief Dave Mason posted on Twitter.
Mason later told ESPN that a sudden surge of bets came in on Contestant X, "one after another."
"Granted, the limits were $100," Mason said, "[but] it raised concern and seemed strange, as previously most money was on [Contestant Y]."
Part of the novelty betting game
Rumors of leaks are a normal part of the game in the novelty betting market. It's up to bettors and bookmakers to figure out which ones are accurate and which ones aren't.
"I think the cat-and-mouse game is the most fascinating part," said Christian Pina, a 30-year-old bettor who plays the novelty market.
It's not a high-stakes game. Betting limits are often as low as $50, but there is a niche of gamblers, with a network of inside sources, that thrives on them.
Sometimes their information is spot on, like when Coldplay led off its halftime show at Super Bowl XL with the song "Vida La Vida." A purported leak out of rehearsal tipped off some bettors that it would be the band's first song. Super Bowl halftime rehearsal leaks have been some of the most reliable, bettors say.
Other times the information is bad, such as last year's Academy Awards, when a rumor that a long shot would win best director picked up steam on Twitter after an offshore sportsbook reported unusual betting interest on Yorgos Lanthimos. In New Jersey, where the state's legal sportsbooks were taking bets on the Oscars for the first time, several operators elected to take down the Best Director odds after the rush of bets.
Lanthimos didn't end up winning; Alfonso Cuarón, the overwhelming favorite, did, and New Jersey sportsbooks would go on to win more than $182,000 on the Oscars, a chunk of it undoubtedly due to the inaccurate rumor.
Despite last year's unusual betting, New Jersey sportsbook operators Caesars Entertainment and DraftKings are among the bookmakers planning to take bets on the Oscars again this year.
"With the Oscars, a very, very important event, there are very few who know the results," Avello said. "I don't believe those events are leaked out. That's a close-knit group that knows them."
Blume, the bookmaker for Pinnacle, disagrees with Avello about the security of the Oscars' results and said in years past he routinely noticed suspicious bets placed at the same time on specific categories that led him to believe something was up.
"Years ago, I was really into offering betting on the Academy Awards," Blume said. "I really like the Oscars, but, let me tell you, I could tell you literally every single winner before the ceremony. Every single winner, without fail, every year."
Will the "Jeopardy!" rumor come to fruition or fall flat? Only a select few know for sure, and therein lies the problem with taking bets on taped events.
"There's a good reason why some books don't offer them," Pete Watt, international public relations executive for Oddschecker, which tracks the betting market, said.
'A buddy in the know'
U.S. sportsbooks are not taking bets on the GOAT tournament. Most state regulations don't allow bets on prerecorded TV shows. Offshore sportsbooks, however, put up odds on all kinds of things, somewhat remarkably even events that are scripted, such as professional wrestling.
"It's a predetermined outcome, but WWE has been one of my most profitable areas to bet," said Pina, one of the bettors who learned of the alleged "Jeopardy!" GOAT winner last month.
Pina says he heard it from a "buddy in the know" on Dec. 19. He declined to expand on how his source knew the outcome, but he was confident enough in the information to place a few thousand dollars in bets on Contestant X, spread over several sportsbooks.
If the GOAT results were indeed leaked, it wouldn't be the first time a high-profile "Jeopardy!" outcome got out. A day before the episode in which Holzhauer's epic 32-game winning streak was snapped, a clip of him losing was posted on the Internet.
An executive director for "Jeopardy!" told The Washington Post that the show had an idea of what had happened and was going to take "very, very, very appropriate" actions. The show has not commented publicly about the leak since, and media relations representatives for "Jeopardy!" did not respond to multiple inquiries from ESPN about the alleged leak of the GOAT results.
"All this other stuff, this 'Jeopardy!' stuff," Avello said, "if you're not booking that live, then there's too many people who know the results of it. To me, you have to be careful on the things that you're booking."