Bookies 58, Bettors 3: Confessions of a Perennial Underdog

Someday the American Psychiatric Association will add a new malady to its list of mental disorders: pigskin prognosticosis, a subclass of the delusions of grandeur suffered by those who think they are Napoleon or Jesus or an emissary from Jupiter who might destroy the world with a sneeze. Pigskin prognosticosis is brought on by football betting, a disease that accounts for the forcible exchange of 10 to 15 million dollars on a typical autumn weekend. Having spent some months probing the psyches of bettors, let me offer the good doctors this description of the disease: the patient knows that the vast majority of bettors lose much more than they win. Yet he persists in believing that he will be the exception to this immutable law of averages. What he calls a “hunch” or in more severe cases a “sure thing” or a “lock” will deliver him from the ranks of the fleeced.

The disease is accompanied by the dread Sunday Evening Syndrome, a period of deep depression following each round of heavy losses. During SES, a patient may curse certain teams or players as if they have betrayed him personally; tear his bookie’s number to shreds; or fling himself to the floor in front of the television, pledging never to bet again if only the Cowboys will beat the Eagles by seven, not by three points. Sufferers from pigskin prognosticosis even have their own demonology, and can be heard muttering about bookies “jacking up the line” by something called a “half-point,” a mysteri-ous entity that exists only in the fevered minds of bettors. Chronic sufferers report a belief in “homer zebras.” referees partial to home teams that the bettor has opposed. (Oddly, homer zebras never tamper with games in which the bettor has taken the home team. In those games, the referees are per-fectly positioned on every play, Argus-eyed and imbued with the wisdom of Solomon.)

Football bettors are enthralled by the ! mysterious powers in the universe that are beyond our puny knowledge. Gambling is more akin to poetry and mysticism than to science and logic. Does man have free will? Do animals have souls? Will Danny White throw five interceptions this Sunday? Such questions mock the plodding rational mind. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and Stephen King were victims of pigskin prognosticosis who managed to channel their fascination with the unknowable into more lucrative pursuits. One patient I visited, an otherwise hard-nosed secular humanist, confesses to waiting for a “vision” to help him pick between evenly matched teams. In October, his vision of Giants quarterback Phil Simms being mauled by Redskin linebackers led him to pop for a hundred on the ’Skins. The Giants, obviously tuned to another vision, won 27-20.

Victims of pigskin prognosticosis often feel that something vast and malevolent is tipping those passes into the hands of the enemy and miring pass rushers in some invisible ooze. One bettor, in guilt-wracked nightmares, imagined a giant set of scales suspended somewhere in the air a few miles from Las Vegas. Clouds of mist swirl across the scene. In the background, the Fates mutter about Jaworski’s ancient legs and the noise factor at RFK Stadium. It is that penultimate moment before the possible blooms into the actual. And here comes our bettor’s wager, floating down onto the scales like a feather. Boom! as John Madden would say; the game is decided. If the patient backs an underdog to beat a favorite, the favorite will smash the underdog. If he takes the favorite against a hopeless pack of losers, the ’dogs will dredge up depths of valor and eke out a last-second victory. 14-13, aided by the extra point missed by some millionaire of ethnic extraction late in the fourth quarter.

Rather than face their illness, bettors rationalize to beat the band, which is about all they can beat. Some say football betting is a kind of poor man’s slock market. “Look at it like this,” one terminal case told me, “you make a phone call and two hours later, strong, skilled professionals are working to protect your investment.” I pointed out that other strong, skilled professionals are working to subvert his investment strategy, but he seemed unmoved. He was down S847 by early November.

Still others claim to enjoy the intellectual challenge of betting-studying records, power indexes, turnover ratios, comparing Seattle’s yards yielded on artificial turf indoors versus Miami’s yards gained in night games against teams with more than five starters who attended schools north of the Mason-Dixon line. Here the information age and the computer revolution conspire to make sick people even sicker; since the newspapers and airwaves are filled with sportsfax. the victims of pigskin prognos-ticosis believe that the magic system for winning will reveal itself when the next bit of data is absorbed. Or the next.

After long contact with these twisted minds, even an objective observer might find himself swayed by the power of their delusions. He might even spend an afternoon developing, oh, thirteen categories for comparing the Denver Broncos and the New York Jets, a 3 1/2-point home underdog on Monday night. And he might find that- gosh-eleven of the categories say take the Broncos and give the points. So to test his hypothesis, in the best tradition of par-ticipatory journalism, he might put thirty strictly hypothetical dollars on the Broncos. And he might watch as the Jets trash all his theories and win, 22-10.

Anyway, after my months of research, Ihave discovered the two Sure-Fire, Can’t-Miss rules of football betting, which I passon to you for free, this being a magazine andnot a tout service: First Law: don’t bet muchon the games you lose. Some would adviseshunning these games altogether, but thatwould cut down the action and make forsome dull Sundays. So be sensible. Keep itsmall. The corollary to this is the SecondLaw: load up big on the games you win. Big.Even veteran bettors will forget this maxim,but nothing is dumber than putting a smallbet on a game you win. Small bets on thelosses, huge bets on the wins. You can takethese rules to the bank. Hope there’s something left when you get there.


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