Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Vignettes from the Board Room

The Board Room, as you may recall, was (is?) a Boston bar.
  • Donnie: "Why so pensive?"

    20-Something Girl Who Had Been Staring into Space: "Oh, I'm not really. I was just thinking."

    No you weren't.

  • One night a friend, Rob, was at the bar and said, "Come on Donnie. Let's cut the cards once for twenty dollars." Rob loved to gamble, particularly at games requiring little or no skill.

    "No, no thanks, Rob."

    "Come on, just once."

    When Rob shows the first sign of persistence, he's showing you your future, which in this case was that I was going to be hearing "Come on, just once" until I agreed or one of us died.

    I caved immediately, rather than submit to his version of the Chinese water torture.¹

    "OK, Rob."

    Rob got a deck of cards from the bartender (one of the features of the Board Room was bench tables with cribbage boards drilled into them, and the bartender always had decks of cards).

    We cut and I won.

    Rob: "Double or nothing."

    No surprise there. I never dreamed we'd cut just once if I won. Well, this turned out to be a lucky night, and I beat Rob four times at twenty dollars a cut.

    Another regular, James, a guy who thought he had all the angles but who actually believed in the maturity of chance, then challenged me, also for twenty dollars. I won, he chose to try again (double or nothing), I won again, he doubled up, making this cut for forty dollars, and I won again. He gave up.

    I had won seven times in a row, a 127-1 shot, and was ahead $160. All seven times the other person had shuffled the deck. It was late, the bartender closed the bar, and I walked across the street with my two victims to another bar and bought them two dollar drinks.

    ¹ The "Chinese water torture" is not Chinese in origin.

  • For a couple of years, 1969 and 1970, I made bets on college football in the form of what was called a "three game tease." One regular customer was a bookie's runner, and he would give me a card with the lines on the college and professional football games - that is, the card contained the games along with identification of each favorite and a point spread, the number of points they were favored by. You could take either team, giving or getting that number of points.

    You could bet from one to eight games, receiving odds on multi-game picks. I got five to one on my three team bets. Of course I had to be right about all three games. One loss meant I lost my bet. Now normally, this would be a sucker bet. If you assume that the point spreads were realistic and you had a fifty-fifty chance of picking the correct team in each game, then the correct odds are seven to one. However, whoever was quoting the odds that were printed on the card usually blew it on several games, and I don't mean blew it in hindsight, but that the lines on those games were predictably and egregiously wrong.

    I waited until the college football season was four or five weeks underway, giving me a chance to evaluate the teams based on recent experience, then began my betting. I usually bet ten dollars, but some weeks bet more if I felt strongly about my picks. The most I ever bet was fifty dollars, and I remember sweating out the third game's result. I had bet on Georgia, but I no longer remember who they were playing. They beat the spread and I won two hundred fifty dollars, more than two weeks' pay at the time.

    I think that in those two years I only lost once, and toward the end of the second season, the bookie's runner approached me on a Monday and gave me five hundred dollars.

    Donnie: "What's this?"

    BR: "For two years I've been watching you win, and this weekend I made flat bets on the three teams you picked."

    Donnie: "Well, great, but you don't owe me anything."

    BR: "Donnie, I'm not going to tell you how much I bet, but that five hundred doesn't make a dent."

    I still wonder how much he bet.

    A word of caution: You can't do that today, or at least I can't. Someone finally wised up, and the lines don't come from one source anymore. They are set by people who are experts on each conference, and the cards no longer quote lines varying wildly from reasonable expectations.

  • However, my happiest moment regarding football betting came in 1970 when another regular overheard me lamenting the fact that the LSU-Notre Dame game was "off the card." Whenever a team was favored by more than 21 points, that game was not in the card's list.

    Notre Dame was favored by 25 points and I wasn't at all sure that they would even win. LSU had what I considered the best defense in college football. The other customer felt that Notre Dame should be favored by more than 25 points, and not being the retiring type I told him I thought that was a joke.

    He wasn't shy either and neither of us would move an inch, so we wound up making a peculiar bet. I took LSU and 25 points, and we bet five dollars a point. That is, the loser would pay the winner five dollars for every point the bookies' spread was off. If Notre Dame won by 28, I would owe $15, having come out three points behind the spread. If they won by 20, he would owe $25, having fallen five points behind the spread. If LSU won, well boy oh boy oh boy. If they won by seven, for example, I'd win by 32 points, pocketing $160.

    In the event it was a defensive battle. Notre Dame kicked a fourth quarter field goal and won the game 3-0, 22 points less than the spread. *Eye* won $110.00.

    Incidentally, this was in principle a bad bet for him to make: his potential winnings were fairly limited but his losses could have been out of sight. Suppose LSU were to win by 10 points. Then he would be 35 points short of the spread and would lose $175. However, for him to win $175, Notre Dame would have to win by 60 points, 35 points more than the spread, and that wasn't going to happen in this world.

    In general, avoid bets in which your potential winnings are more limited than your potential losses.

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