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My Search for Bettors on the George Washington Bridge

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This summer, a friend who likes to bet on sports told me that bettors were defying New York’s ban on smartphone sports gambling by crossing the Hudson River to New Jersey to place legal bets.

As the New York-area sports correspondent for The New York Times, I thought it could be a perfect example of the kind of stories we like to bring to readers: something different but relevant, rooted in an important issue and perhaps even identifiable.

Apparently, bettors were using the PATH train, and some even went over the George Washington Bridge, where, as soon as they reached the Jersey side, they were opening gambling apps. I could envision the story already. The G.W.B.: the world’s unlikeliest sportsbook and casino. So I employed the most basic tool a reporter has: I went to see for myself.

The biggest day of the week for betting on sports in the United States is Sunday, when millions of dollars are wagered on National Football League games across the country, both legally and illegally. So on Sept. 19, I drove across the bridge, took the first exit in New Jersey, parked in a residential area and walked the five minutes back to the bridge.

At the foot-and-bike path 15 minutes before the 1 p.m. football games, I did not see many people. There were several bikers moving swiftly — and dangerously, I thought — but they had full cyclist gear on. I also saw tourists and hikers enjoying a sunny day and a splendid view.

Then I spotted a man sitting on a low wall staring at his phone.

I was not certain what to say. Would he want to share his story with a stranger, particularly a reporter? I asked the man, Colman Cooper, if he had DraftKings, one of the popular sports betting apps. He said he did. I told him I was with The Times and interested in what he was doing for a potential article. He was more than just amenable. He was a terrific resource.

He told me all about how he had biked from his home in Washington Heights in Manhattan and had been doing it regularly for about a year. Mr. Cooper places modest bets (most of them in the $2-$15 range, he said), then cycles home to watch the games.

He said he had seen as many as 15 to 20 people on the bridge making bets, although at that moment he was the sole gambler.

At that point I knew I had a good story and emailed editors in the Sports department, who encouraged me to proceed. I returned to the bridge on Oct. 3, this time much earlier in the day, and with the photographer Emma Howells, who helped me gather information.

We knew what to look for. Skip the tourists and the flashy bikers and find the folks (all of them were men) who appeared to be stationary, staring at their phones. I spoke to three more gamblers that day while trying not to look down at the river from the dizzying height of the walkway. Emma spotted four others. She also found a piece of paper someone left behind with $50 worth of European soccer bets outlined on it.

But only half the work was done. I needed context. I called Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., the chairman of the committee on racing, wagering and gaming in the New York State Senate. New York state legalized sports betting in April, but until it reaches a deal with an operator, app-based sports bets remain prohibited. Mr. Addabbo told me he expected online bets to add millions of dollars to state coffers. I asked him about the consequences for gambling addiction, and addressed that vital issue in the article.

I also called the chief oddsmaker at DraftKings, and I spoke to a professor at Oklahoma State University who is studying the spread of legal sports gambling in other states, to get his impartial view. On Oct. 10, we published our article.

It started with a drive to the bridge. And I’m still glad I wasn’t run over by a cyclist.

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