Black smoke billows out from a chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel indicating… (Christopher Furlong/Getty…)
March Madness isn't limited to NCAA basketball this year.
With cardinals meeting in the Vatican to elect a pope any day now, pools have sprung up across the city as Catholics and non-Catholics place their bets on who will be the next leader of the Catholic Church.
Call it Pope Madness.
"We thought it would be fun since it wound up landing right around the same time as March Madness did," said Vince Zwit, a 24-year-old Lakeview resident.
"My friends and I were joking about it one day and then we actually said, 'hey we should try this,'" added David Rivelli, a 28-year-old River North resident who organized a pool once he learned Pope Benedict would step down. "I think the suddenness of Benedict retiring made everything very exciting and the idea that who it could be is really a huge question mark. I also have crazy friends who bet on anything."
Zwit opted for a more traditional style when setting up his pool with a couple of buddies using http://www.popebracket.com.
"We felt it would be a good warmup for the big tournament," he said. "We wound up making the stakes low and keeping the points simple. Not very large increases in points as the rounds progress so that it keeps the score close. The basic idea was to have it so that if the cardinal you picked to win got out in an early round, you still had a chance to compete to win."
Right now, oddsmaker PaddyPower.com lists Archbishop Angelo Scola of Italy as the odds-on favorite to succeed Pope Benedict XVI at 11-4, followed by Brazil's Cardinal Odilo Scherer (7-2) and Ghana's Cardinal Peter Turkson (8-1). Chicago's Cardinal Francis George is considered a long shot at 200-1.
Zwit stands to win $40 in his pool if Turkson is the next pope. He said he made his pick based on the cardinal's track record.
"[Turkson's] been in the congregation for a while now," he said. "Also the fact that we now have the first African-American president in office [in the United States], maybe the same can happen to the Vatican."
Rivelli opted for a more random way of setting up the pool in an effort to level the playing field.
"Since mostly no one knew who anyone was, we picked the pope candidates out of a hat," he said. "There were three tiers based on age and everyone gets a candidate in each tier. The first 40 candidates were in tier one. The second 40 candidates tier two. The third tier of candidates were the 35 oldest."
Rivelli charged all comers a $5 entrance fee. His pool started off with around 10 people but has since grown to 60 as more people learned about what they were doing.
"Guessing who the next pope will be is very fun and about as exciting as religion can get," he said.
So far, his pool has amassed $300 in entry fees, money he says will be go to Catholic Charities regardless of who wins.
"This way, in our view, it is not a sin," he said. "I will have a trophy for the winner, which will be fully blessed."
Both Zwit and Rivelli say that since they started their respective pools, they've been paying closer attention to developments coming out of the Vatican.
"I check Twitter updates all the time and have been reading who the top candidates are," Rivelli said. "[It's] kind of like fantasy football but more holy."
"I'll definitely be paying more attention to the color of the smoke that comes out of the chimney day in and day out, hoping that Peter Turkson emerges to speak his first words to the public," Zwit said.
Matt Lindner is a RedEye special contributor.
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