Cyber Stakes

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The office of the World Sports Exchange, one of the companies targeted by the Justice Department, is on the third floor. It manages the oldest Internet sports betting Website in Antigua and the one Shabber uses. The operation, which receives millions of dollars per year in bets, is run from one sterile, white, 20-by-40-foot room. It includes 15 computer screens on card tables, several phones, and a printer. Employees track sporting events on two TV sets. The walls are decorated with pennants from professional sports teams and a calendar featuring the smiling face of Lester Bird, Antigua's prime minister and a champion of Internet wagering. Bird's government has collected a $75,000 license fee from each sports betting site on the island and $100,000 from each virtual casino. This may explain his enthusiasm.

Steve Schillinger, age 45, is a partner in Sports Exchange and a fugitive from American justice. Rather than face criminal charges, he has decided to stay in Antigua and run the business. Co-owner Jay Cohen recently returned to New York to fight the government's accusations. Before coming to the island, Schillinger was a trader on the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. There he put on a tie each day. Now he is dressed in shorts, T-shirt, and flip-flops and wears his graying ponytail under a baseball cap. He used to scream out orders; now he works in relative quiet with only the clicking sound of computer keys.

Schillinger and his partner Cohen, another former stock trader and San Francisco sports fanatic, founded the Sports Exchange in October 1996. In less than two years, they have signed up 4000 players, 2000 of whom bet at least once per week, Schillinger says. Hundreds of people make daily wagers. The company has customers from the United States, including many from South Florida. Most wagers are between $10 and $100, although Schillinger accepts bets as high as $5000. Almost all bets are taken over the Net, though the company also has an 800 number.

It is early evening. The second game of the NBA finals and several Major League Baseball contests are about to begin. The odds have been posted on the Sports Exchange Website and bets are pouring in. All players have made deposits with the company via wire transfers or cashier's checks before game time. They can participate only as long as they keep money in their accounts. Each wager causes a computer to emit a sound, much like a piano note. A description of the wager, the amount, and the bettor's code name pop up on the screen. Sometimes so many e-mails arrive concurrently that the sound is like a piano riff. Schillinger says the business averages 15 to 20 bets per minute as tip-off and the first pitch approach. "You should hear this place a half-hour before NFL games start on Sunday," he says. "Then it gets really crazy."

Schillinger insists his legal problems are the result of prosecutors' hypocrisy. "This is the government going after us when the states themselves are ripping off people on lottery bets," he says. "You have no real chance of winning the lottery, whereas with us you have a decent chance. We pay back about 97 percent of all the money bet. So who's ripping off whom? Also, we don't go out breaking anybody's arm because they didn't pay. We're much less trouble than a bookie.

"Some people just like to bet," he says. "They always have and they always will. Trying to stop them won't do any good. It's better to regulate it and tax it. I'd gladly pay more taxes if I could operate in the States."

The three Miami-Dade men charged on the same day as Schillinger are David Budin, age 65, and his son Steven Budin, age 27, both of North Miami Beach; and Sandy Becher, age 30, of Aventura. They operated SDB Global, a Miami company that until recently advertised a sports betting Website registered in Costa Rica. None of the men would agree to be interviewed for this article. But public records reveal some details of their lifestyles.

David Budin is a businessman and gambler who was a director of two businesses that went bankrupt in the early '80s, public records show. A third business that he directed closed in 1995. Today Budin owns a 28th-floor penthouse at the posh Terraces of Turnberry. He drives a 1989 Mercedes 560 SEC.

And Budin, it seems, is a lucky bettor. On the last day of the horseracing season at Hialeah Race Track in March 1987, Budin picked eight of ten winners and raked in a jackpot, after taxes, of $173,167 on a $2 bet, according to the Miami Herald. And then something strange happened. Four stacks of cash totaling $20,000, part of Budin's winnings, disappeared from a counting room. Only Budin, a friend of his, and track officials were in the room, the Herald reported. Everyone denied taking the money. Budin left the track with the remaining $153,000 stuffed into a typewriter case. It is unclear how the dispute was resolved.

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John Lantigua