The modern era of sports betting began in Chicago.
Its da Vinci was Charles K. McNeil, a math geek, bad banker and what we would now call a degenerate gambler. He got his rocks off going to baseball games in the 1930s and wagering on outcomes with the people seated around him.
McNeil’s signal achievement was the creation of the point spread. At a time when the suckers could only bet winners, McNeil’s lightning bolt allowed losers a chance to pay off.
Like most blindingly obvious advances, it was largely ignored by the establishment. McNeil created his own book and did quite well until the mob moved in on him. Though largely forgotten, he is a more transformative figure in the United States’ sports industrial complex than any coach or commissioner.
Philosophically, McNeil made everything in sports appear to be a 50/50 proposition. His breakthrough was both prosaic (this is in many ways the arithmetical shovel that began digging out the rabbit hole of analytics) and poetic (because if everything is possible, anything is as well). The space in between has become the chasm that separates the people who watch games and the ones who play them.
I think about this most days when the Vegas odds on this or that upcoming event hit my inbox.
On Monday morning, the Chicago Cubs were simultaneously Vegas favourites to win Tuesday’s Game 6 of the World Series (5-to-7), but still attracting loser money to lift a trophy (37-to-20).
Does that make sense? I suppose so. There’s a reason they keep building casinos in the desert. But it still makes my head hurt.
(This is akin to the masochistic exercise that is watching a team’s “playoff odds” vacillate over the course of a regular season. When they are winning, their odds increase. When they are losing, they decrease. I don’t think this qualifies as math as I understand it. It’s more like “guessing, but with numbers attached.”)
Will the Cubs win this thing? The right answer is “maybe.” That’s why they play the games.
At this point, an ESPN stats bot would begin flooding you with figures on what might happen – for example, the last team to win the final two games of a World Series on the road was the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. What does that Pirates team have in common with these Cubs? Well, as far as we know, they were both staffed entirely by large humans. That’s about it.
If the numbers are of scant help, the people playing the games aren’t much better. Just ask them. Oddly, none of them has to hand a raft of statistics about the last time they strung together three wins in four nights when the wind shear was moving robustly out of the northeast. They work to a more mystical and equally ineffective logic.
Chicago’s plinth-like first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, convened a clubhouse pep rally before Game 5. What was his reassuring message to his colleagues?
“It was all about going the distance,” Rizzo said before Aroldis Chapman became – inhale before you try to say this – one of two pitchers to record an eight-plus-out save in a one-run World Series game in which a loss would have meant elimination.
Sorry, what was that about “distance” again?
“It was just to let everyone know it’s time to go the distance,” Rizzo said.
Aside from being pillaged from Field of Dreams, I’m not sure that that line makes any sense. But neither does baseball most of the time.
What has allowed the Cubs to thus far overcome the mathematical likelihood that a team that goes down 3-1 in a best-of-seven series should lose more often than not?
“It’s that team-chemistry deal, man,” said Chicago’s Kyle Schwarber.
One supposes that the Indians also feel confident in their team-chemistry deal, but they still lost.
If Cleveland wins on Tuesday, the Indians will be the ones telling us about their unbelievable chemistry and how every guy in that room knew – knew – they were gonna win it all along. They just knew.
(Of course, they didn’t know. What we call hoping, they call knowing. Which is why they play in the Bigs and we got cut in high school.)
This infection of prediction is caused by the need for sport to expand beyond its own natural boundaries (such as the time it takes to play a game). Pre-McNeil, those hours between games were spent in reflection of what had happened. Since him, for very good capitalistic reasons, they are spent looking forward to what is most likely to happen next. Neither outlook affects the result in any measurable way, but our new way of doing it does tend to make things less fun.
The root enjoyment of sports – aside from watching people perform physical feats – is its randomness. Very little of our lives are random. Not the big things, at least. You can chart your life backward and each step seems rational in hindsight.
But the Cubs going 108 years without a title? Or Leicester City winning the Premiership? Or the Cleveland Cavaliers taking three straight elimination games from a team that had lost only nine times over the course of an NBA season?
Those things don’t make any sense. That’s what makes them great.
Sports defy the imposition of order. While our need to push it onto them becomes more capacious, they react with increased chaos. It may only seem this way, but never before have so many inevitable things blown up on the oddsmaker’s launch pad.
It is very like watching a system correct itself in the face of an unreasonable intrusion by millions of would-be actuaries. Once you think you’ve figured it out, it grows more unruly. It defies our attempts to render the most exciting thing in our popular culture boring.
The simpler thing would be to watch and hope. And only afterward claim that you knew. That bet’s been paying off for years.Report Typo/Error
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