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ATLANTIC CITY, NJ — John Raymond made a plan and stuck to it after arriving at the Borgata Casino in Atlantic City to bet on the March Madness college basketball tournament on Thursday.

“I’m going to drink as much as I can, earn as much money as I can, watch every game, eat good food and hang out with my friends,” the man from Wilmington, Delaware said. “I’m going to chase that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and if for some reason it doesn’t work out today, I’m going to do it all again tomorrow.”

That kind of exuberance was happening in casinos, bars, lounges and distracted offices across the country on Thursday as the annual championship tournament got underway. It was also St. Patrick’s Day.

The national gaming industry trade group, the American Gaming Association, predicts that 45 million Americans will bet on the tournament, legally or not.

“It’s been such a fun day,” said Mike Cassidy, also from Wilmington, Delaware. “It’s one of the best days of the year.”

It’s also one of the busiest for casinos and sportsbooks acting on the tournament, especially this year as COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted in most places.

“It’s good to be back in full gear,” said Tom Gable, director of racing and sports betting at Borgata. “Last year’s March Madness was the first mass gathering we’ve held since COVID began, but we were still social distancing. This year seems to be back to normal. We were getting calls in December of people wishing to reserve seats to watch the tournament.

The AGA has predicted that $3.1 billion will be wagered on this year’s tournament, a figure that includes legal bets as well as those placed with illegal bookmakers or offshore websites. He said he expects more than 17% of American adults to place at least one bet on the tournament.

Among them was Mike McMahon of Long Island, New York who, like many across the country, picked Gonzaga to win it all.

“This is Gonzaga’s year,” he said. “I picked them in almost all of my parentheses, 12 of them.”

He also thinks Tennessee, Kentucky and Kansas will make the Final Four.

Raymond also picked Gonzaga to win the championship, defeating Arizona in the final. He noted, with some disappointment, that a larger group of friends were supposed to be there with him on Thursday, “but their wives wouldn’t let them.”

His friend Cassidy, perhaps influenced by the fact that it was St. Patrick’s Day, chose Notre Dame to win the title.

“The Irish will rule the table,” said Cassidy, who has a pixie tattoo. “They’ve been out of the tournament for years, and they’re hot now. It’s March, baby! Everything can happen.”

The National Gambling Group predicts that 36.5 million Americans will bet by filling in brackets predicting the outcome of every game through to the final.

Currently, 30 states plus Washington, DC offer legal sports betting, and there are 29 million more American adults living in states that have adopted legal sports betting since last year’s March Madness tournament.

AGA Poll bettors named Gonzaga (17%) their favorite to win the tournament, followed by Duke (12%) and Kentucky (11%).