Betting on Sports: Mathematics for the Win

by Brendan I. Koerner

I have the good fortune to be closely related to a successful professional gambler, a man who has taught me a ton about the brainpower required to beat the odds. Had he been born into better economic circumstances, I have no doubt that he would have ended up with a corner office on Wall Street. But college wasn't an option given his family's meager resources, so he enlisted in the Army and learned to put his talents to work at the track and the pool hall. And though he's never known the pleasure of a $15,000 umbrella stand, it's clear that he's spent his career slicing through math problems that would vex the sharpest hedge-fund baron.

As the Super Bowl approaches, I thought it would be worth hipping y'all to one of this Runyon-esque character's primary gambling lessons: betting on professional football is a mug's game. Oh, sure, you can potentially achieve some small measure of success if you're willing to make multiple bets per contest over an entire season, and you pay careful attention to such minute factors as wind conditions, cleat length, and the status of key players' divorce proceedings. But gamblers who really understand the math are no fans of the NFL; they know that the multi-billion-dollar industry that surrounds the league's wagering exists solely to part fools from their money, by creating the illusion that objective observation can lead to winning bets over the long-term. (Sound familiar?)

So how do the pros make bank while staking their money on circumstances they can't control? Baseball and ponies.

The main problem with betting on football and basketball is that Charles K. McNeil was a lot smarter than us. McNeil was the Chicago securities analyst who invented the point spread, the ingenious method by which the house maintains the advantage while deluding bettors into thinking they know what's what. The point spread has, of course, become the default manner by which bookmakers maintain balance—or, at the very least, the illusion of balance. It's an albatross around the neck of fair-minded punters the world over.

But baseball betting still operates according to odds, a system that is slightly more favorable to the common man. More important, those odds vary primarily according to each game's pitching matchups; if you have a contrarian notion that a certain ace is about to have an off game, you can really clean up.

Horse racing, meanwhile, is a great way to make money if you're willing to put in time at the track. As my relative notes, 98 percent of the people who bet on horses have no idea what they're doing; they plunk down money based on gut feelings, past performance, or cuteness of a competitor's name. You can run rings around those folks if you're willing to attend morning workouts with stopwatch in hand, as well as understand when it's appropriate to take a risk on a parlay. (My relative's share in a successful Pick Six gambit is what put home ownership within his reach.)

So why does pro football remain America's favorite sport upon which to wager? My relative has a theory about this which rings true, which he once expressed to me with a shrug: "People don't pay much attention to numbers."

No, we don't. Because our nation has collective math anxiety, we put our trust in those who claim to understand what's really going on beneath the surface. But more often than not, such self-proclaimed experts are simply working a self-serving agenda, and don't really possess the wisdom which they claim. Truth be told, I'd rather have such charlatans conning us into bad sports wagers than haphazardly creating securities. But given how little scrutiny we give to the basic mathematic wisdom of everyday transactions, I fear that we'll inevitably get fooled again—and again, and again.

(Want more of my take on the intersection between gambling and math? Check out my recent ruminations on jai alai, underground Filipino lotteries, and Balinese cockfighting.)

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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