A couple of weekends ago, a friend of mine — a serial sports bettor — called to relate to me his latest mood-altering, stomach-turning, I-bet-the-house-and-had-the-house-won-until-the-house-came-tumbling-down wagering disaster:
He bet $1,000 on USC as a 7½-point underdog against Stanford. USC never trailed by more than seven points and even led late in the game but Stanford forced overtime. If this were the NFL, my friend would’ve been ensured of winning his wager, since USC could not have lost by more than six points in the sudden-death extra period. But in college, teams alternate possessions from the 25-yard line, and if the game remains tied through two overtimes, by rule teams must try a two-point conversion from the third overtime on if they score a touchdown.
In the third overtime, Stanford got a touchdown and made the two-point conversion; USC then fumbled on its possession. Final score: Stanford 56, USC 48.
With USC losing by more than 7½ points, my friend’s thousand bucks was headed for its new home with his bookie.
In my misspent lifetime, I have known hundreds of misguided souls who have bet on sports. And virtually every single one of them loses.
Betting against the point spread is an illusion. On paper, you should be right every other time. But, alas, you’re not. Because for reasons that only smarter people than I could explain, people happen to be wrong more often than they’re right.
In addition, even if you were right half the time, you’d lose. That’s because of the “vig” or the “juice” — the 10 percent tax the house charges. So to win $100, you have to risk $110; essentially, the bookie is like Bank of America, minus the federal bailouts.
Thus, the bettor must be right 53 percent of the time just to break even. And, best I can tell, nobody is right 53 percent of the time, other than Stephen Hawking and actuaries.
The other illusion at work here is a dangerous one — that any one bet gets you to even.
I learned this the hard way in June 1983.
I had been betting for less than a year, mostly $25 and $50 wagers, and carved out a small profit. Frankly, the money wasn’t as important as the adrenaline rush I got from gambling and the ego boost I got from being right.
Then came my personal wagering Waterloo.
One Tuesday, I bet a baseball game and lost. On Wednesday, I bet another baseball game and lost. On Thursday, I doubled my wager — and lost. On Friday, I doubled it again — and lost. By Saturday, my bet was up to $200 — and I lost. Then on Sunday, with $400 riding on the Orioles-Blue Jays game, I listened on my car radio as Tim Stoddard walked the bases loaded before allowing Buck Martinez’s first career grand slam; Toronto won and I lost. That was the last baseball game I ever listened to on the car radio.
The following Monday, settlement day with my bookie, I handed him an envelope with nearly $900 in it — it felt like $9,000 to me — and after wiping out all my year-long profit in a six-day span, decided I would never bet sports again, undoubtedly the second-best decision of my adult life.
That didn’t stop me, several years later, from advising my first future ex-wife to become a bookie when she was looking for part-time work while in law school. I told her it would provide a fairly easy, fairly guaranteed flow of income.
She told me my plan had one tragic flaw: If she were arrested and convicted of bookmaking, it was a felony and she could never practice law. I told her to — excuse the expression — “just gamble you won’t get caught.” Besides, I reasoned, it shouldn’t be a crime anyway.
She wisely ignored my suggestion, and, then, just before her second year of law school, did the even smarter thing — she left me.
Things have a way of working out, though.
This week I’ll watch the Jets-Broncos game Thursday night on NFL Network with my wife Toni, who undoubtedly is the best decision of my adult life. And — now in my 28th year of sports-betting abstinence — we’ll go out before the game to eat a nice dinner with the money saved from not taking the Broncos and the points.
Q. As a longtime observer of the Washington Redskins, do you blame Daniel Snyder for their longtime woes? (Robert Smith; Charleston, W. Va.)
A. The owner is a soulless bully, but he’s not the one throwing interceptions the last decade. You cannot win in the NFL without a quarterback — it’s like trying to shop at Costco without a shopping cart.
Q. Can you explain why professional golfers wear sunglasses on the back of their heads? (Mitch Margolis; Gaithersburg)
A. With a late tee time, the sun is often setting behind them on the back nine.
Q. Since it always seems that half the league has a concussion and the other half hamstring issues, shouldn’t the NFLPA insist on a four-game schedule? (Eric Karashinski; Milwaukee)
A. Pay the man, Shirley.
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