LAS VEGAS Think youre going to ace freshman year? Want to put money on that?
A website called Ultrinsic is taking wagers on grades from students at 36 colleges nationwide starting this month.
Just as Las Vegas sports books set odds on football games, Ultrinsic will pay you top dollar for As, a little less for the more likely outcome of a B average or better, and so on. You also can wager youll fail a class by buying what Ultrinsic calls grade insurance.
CEO Steven Wolf insists this is not online gambling, which is technically illegal in the United States, because wagers with Ultrinsic involve skill.
The students have 100 percent control over it, over how they do. Other peoples stuff, you bet on your own stuff, you invest in, Wolf said. Everythings true about it, Im just trying to say that the underlying concept is a little bit more than just making a bet its actually an incentive.
Your mother may disagree, however, that its a smart way to spend money never mind that its legal. And a California gambling law expert says she may be right, once you take into account the factors besides skill that contribute to academic performance.
Heres how Wolf says the website works: A student registers, uploads his or her schedule and gives Ultrinsic access to official school records. The New York-based site then calculates odds based on the students college history and any information it can dig up on the difficulty of each class, the topic and other factors. The student decides how much to wager up to a cap that starts at $25 and increases with use.
Alex Winter, a 20-year-old about to start his junior year majoring in economics at the University of Pennsylvania, says he placed wagers through Ultrinsic after getting a flier on campus.
I said, OK, that sounds like an easy way to make money, so I signed up, said Winter, who bet $20 to $50 each on six of the 10 classes he took last year and cleared $150 overall.
Students at Penn and New York University could play at Ultrinsic last year. Its expansion this month to 34 more campuses comes with new funding, Wolf says. He wouldnt name the investors or say how much they put in.
Ultrinsic saves its longest shots for fresh-faced high school graduates: If you wager $20 that youll finish college with a 4.0 GPA and follow through, youll get $2,000 when you graduate. At 100-1 odds, thats like a typical seven-team football parlay bet in Sin City. Instead of picking the right side in seven games, though, a student has to win in every class over an entire college career.
Winter, who says his GPA is 3.7, says he never thought about whether his wagers were illegal because he liked being pushed to work harder.
That never really crossed my mind, he says. Looking back, if there were to be any legal issues, I wouldnt feel that bad because its for a good cause.
Ultrinsics lawyers say it has nothing to worry about because getting good grades takes skill, and students are betting on themselves, Wolf says.
Legal definitions of gambling list three elements chance, some sort of fee or wager and a prize, says I. Nelson Rose, a gambling law expert and professor at Whittier Law School in California.
Carnival games offer prizes for a fee, but skill is ostensibly required to win. Contests advertised on cereal boxes offer prizes with winners chosen by chance, but the box says no purchase necessary.
With Ultrinsic, things are less clear.
Its not entirely within the control of the (player), Rose says, offering the example of a professor of his who gave everyone As after learning he wouldnt be considered for tenure. Another teacher could be equally capricious in handing out Cs. But it is mostly within their control.
And Winter questions how well Ultrinsics algorithms set odds: Ultrinsic bet 2-to-1 that he wouldnt get an A-minus or better in an African history class hes heard most students ace.
I shouldnt have made $100 on top of the $50 I got back, Winter says.
Still, a common test to determine the role of skill whether you can purposely lose seems to apply to Ultrinsic, Rose says.
Certainly, you could have crappy grades, Rose said.
Given the role of skill, Ultrinsic might be legal under both federal and state law, Rose says. Tell that to Internet poker players, who have been fighting a 2006 federal ban on online gambling, hoping to get online card rooms legalized.
Even with a series of court decisions, the law remains vague. A congressional committee this summer approved legislation to legalize and regulate online gambling, but the bill has a long road ahead.
Rose asked who will ensure the company makes good on bets or guard against students cheating. And he suggested that laws governing insurance which was once considered gambling could apply to students betting on bad outcomes.
But colleges may not be able to limit use of Ultrinsic, just as they face significant obstacles steering students away from other potential dangers outside class, like binge drinking or unsafe sex.
A spokesman for Penn declined comment, as did a spokeswoman for the University of California, Berkeley. An NYU spokesman didnt respond to a request for comment.
Wolf hopes to attract about 100 students per school 3,600 in all this academic year. Whether they win will be their choice, he says.
Theres definitely a lot of variables, but the biggest variable is how much effort the student wants to put in, Wolf says. In general, if anybody would study 10 hours a day consistently for one class, they would get whatever grade they wanted to get.