“It’s not entirely within the control of the [player],” Rose says, offering the example of a professor of his who gave everyone A’s after learning he wouldn’t be considered for tenure. Another teacher could be equally capricious in handing out C’s. “But it is mostly within their control.”
And Winter questions how well Ultrinsic’s algorithms set odds: Ultrinsic bet 2-to-1 that he wouldn’t get an A-minus or better in an African history class he’s heard most students ace.
“I shouldn’t 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.”
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 might 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 didn’t 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.
“There’s 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.”