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Gambling Contracts

15 January, 2016 - 09:33

All states have regulations affecting gambling (wagering) contracts because gambling tends to be an antiutilitarian activity most attractive to those who can least afford it, because gambling tends to reinforce fatalistic mind-sets fundamentally incompatible with capitalism and democracy, because gambling can be addictive, and because gambling inevitably attracts criminal elements lured by readily available money. With the spread of antitax enthusiasms over the last thirty-some years, however, some kinds of gambling have been legalized and regulated, including state-sponsored lotteries. Gambling is betting on an outcome of an event over which the bettors have no control where the purpose is to play with the risk.

But because the outcome is contingent on events that lie outside the power of the parties to control does not transform a bargain into a wager. For example, if a gardener agrees to care for the grounds of a septuagenarian for life in return for an advance payment of $10,000, the uncertainty of the date of the landowner’s death does not make the deal a wager. The parties have struck a bargain that accurately assesses, to the satisfaction of each, the risks of the contingency in question. Likewise, the fact that an agreement is phrased in the form of a wager does not make it one. Thus a father says to his daughter, “I’ll bet you can’t get an A in organic chemistry. If you do, I’ll give you $50.” This is a unilateral contract, the consideration to the father being the daughter’s achieving a good grade, a matter over which she has complete control.

Despite the general rule against enforcing wagers, there are exceptions, most statutory but some rooted in the common law. The common law permits the sale or purchase of securities: Sally invests $6,000 in stock in Acme Company, hoping the stock will increase in value, though she has no control over the firm’s management. It is not called gambling; it is considered respectable risk taking in the capitalist system, or “entrepreneurialism.” (It really is gambling, though, similar to horse-race gambling.) But because there are speculative elements to some agreements, they are subject to state and federal regulation.

Insurance contracts are also speculative, but unless one party has no insurable interest (a concern for the person or thing insured) in the insured, the contract is not a wager. Thus if you took out a life insurance contract on the life of someone whose name you picked out of the phone book, the agreement would be void because you and the insurance company would have been gambling on a contingent event. (You bet that the person would die within the term of the policy, the insurance company that she would not.) If, however, you insure your spouse, your business partner, or your home, the contingency does not make the policy a wagering agreement because you will have suffered a direct loss should it occur, and the agreement, while compensating for a possible loss, does not create a new risk just for the “game.”