In a world where one can bet on a sports event, a reality television show or who the next pope might be, this bet leaped off the screen as stark and dystopian. It was late on a Saturday night, and one of the top poker players in the world sent this tweet to his thousands of followers:
The stakes were clear: more than 100,000 people die of the coronavirus, and Chris Hunichen makes money.
Responses were immediate and full of fury. As the coronavirus outbreak swept across America, who wants to bet on how many people the virus will kill?
In the world of poker, Hunichen is a big deal. His nickname is “Big Huni,” and he says his career winnings in live and online poker have topped $20 million. He has made a living from poker for the better part of two decades, including a million-dollar prize from one event last year, and he has made regular appearances in World Series of Poker competitions.
He says he did not set his bet because he thought it would be a good way to, pardon the expression, make a killing. Frankly, he is quite scared of the coronavirus. He is 35. He dismisses talk about how people in his age group are not at risk of death.
He has asthma. His respiratory system already is weak. The coronavirus attacks the respiratory system.
“Every day, I would see some kind of article where some 30-year-old or 35-year-old dies from this stuff,” Hunichen said in a telephone interview. “Honestly, I’m terrified. If I get it, I feel like that’s going to be me.”
As he holed up in his Nevada home with his wife and two children, ages 7 and 3, Hunichen grew increasingly aghast at what he saw and heard in the outside world.
He had friends that flew to Costa Rica, with the notion that they could escape the virus. He had friends tell him of parties that still raged in the North Carolina town where he attended college. On the night he set the bet, he had to read conspiracy theories a friend sent him, about how elites had spread the virus so the markets would tank and the elites could profit.
“I’d finally had enough,” he said.
America needed to just stay home, he thought. Out of disgust more than anything else, he sent his tweet and invited the world to bet.
Hunichen is a poker player, not a scientist or an elected official. The best way for him to reach an audience is not with a passionate speech or a petition drive.
He bets. His followers bet. So Hunichen bet: If more than 100,000 Americans die because of COVID-19 by Sept. 1, he wins $10,000. If not, he loses.
On March 31, the White House cited statistical models that estimated 100,000 to 240,000 Americans would die over the course of the pandemic. On the previous day, a prolific sports bettor who goes by the Twitter handle EmpireMaker2 had offered this coronavirus wager: The line would be 50,000 American deaths this year, he would take the under, and anyone could take the over if “they trust the experts.”
Said Hunichen: “If I just wanted to profit off death, I would have taken the over-50K by the end of the year. That’s a much better bet.
“That wasn’t what I was trying to do here. I was trying to raise awareness. This is really a bad problem and, if people aren’t going to stay home and take it seriously, it’s only going to get worse.”
Even before then, Hunichen had responded to his online critics with the same refrain. He was not rooting for death. He hoped he would lose.
Of all the criticisms, the one that stung was this: What are you doing to help?
Hunichen said he and his wife often cooked a pile of tacos, stocked up on water and made deliveries among the homeless in Las Vegas. So he offered a second $10,000 bet, for the same terms but different stakes. This time, while the loser still would pay up, the winner would donate the money to feed the homeless, in whatever city he or she calls home.
For the wager in which the winner would keep the money, Hunichen had no trouble attracting $10,000 worth of bets. For the wager in which the winner would donate the winnings to the homeless, he said he attracted $2,500.
“That’s kind of expected, I guess. And not all people are fortunate enough to be in position to donate money like I am,” Hunichen said. “But, at the same time, when a lot of people are going to attack me and tell me I should be doing this or that, donating money to hospital workers, or buying masks and sending them — those people, if they’re going to run their mouths, then they should take the bet.
“It’s a little frustrating that a lot of people would attack me for the bet but then not step up to the plate when there is money to be donated.”
A few days after Hunichen had lined up bettors for his first wager, one sent him a message. The bettor had put up $3,000, but now he had taken ill and feared he might have contracted the coronavirus. He subsequently reported feeling better, but at first he asked for his money back.
The message to Hunichen: “Can I please get out of the bet? Now I’m scared I am going to be one of the deaths.”
The message from Hunichen: “I’ll be honest. I think you’re actually a small favorite right now. But, if you want to get out of the bet, you can.”
The result? “I let him out.”