Bookie or Broker

It’s no secret that the stock market is a gamble, but a new Web site turns the analogy into reality.

Two weeks ago, VSMarket.com (the “VS” stands for versus) launched to let players put money on the ultimate dog race: stocks on the Nasdaq and New York Stock Exchange. Co-founder Robin Ramm-Ericson calls it “financial entertainment,” although participants bet real money. Ramm-Ericson says the founders got the idea while on vacation in Thailand after watching a cockfight and the intense wagering of the spectators.

After setting up a VSMarket account, gamblers can bet on a company’s daily stock performance in heats, like greyhound races, or head to head, like boxing matches. Players can see each other’s bets, so friends can play against each other.

There’s still debate whether it’s legal for U.S. citizens to place bets online, and Sweden-based VSMarket hopes to take advantage of this ambiguity for as long as possible. Anti-Net-gambling legislation died in Congress last year and there’s no move to reintroduce it. Meanwhile, the Federal Wire Act of 1961 prohibits bookmaking over telephone wires, and many online gambling sites remain cautious while lawmakers decide how the act should apply to the Internet.

Last week, while an online-gambling industry convention convened in Queensland, Australia, Playboy and British bookie firm Ladbrokes said they will codevelop a sports-book site, but they won’t accept bets from the United States.

John Crigler, a communications attorney in Washington, asks, “Even if the host is located in a foreign jurisdiction, would the law apply if U.S. customers are placing the bet? The issue is, where is cyberspace?”

Meanwhile, VSMarket, with its focus on short-term performance and head-to-head competition, seems to appeal unabashedly to market-obsessed Americans. Intentionally or not, it also highlights the thin psychological line separating the Vegas rube from the rookie daytrader.

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