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Bet, book and handle
Larry Merchant
September 03, 1973
'Life,' wrote Damon Runyon, 'is 6-5 against.' At least in that game there's no vigorish—the 11-to-10 odds a bookie gets on each football bet, which constitutes his edge. As if he needed it. Twelve to 15 million Americans bet pro football on any given Sunday (or Monday), and unless they're wagering against each other, sooner or later almost all of them lose. In the 1972 season the author set out to see if he could buck the odds, have fun and find true love. 'The National Football Lottery,' to be published this month by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, describes his quest. The following excerpts deal with some of the characters he met from New York to Las Vegas (left). P.S. He won $17,309
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September 03, 1973

Bet, Book And Handle

'Life,' wrote Damon Runyon, 'is 6-5 against.' At least in that game there's no vigorish—the 11-to-10 odds a bookie gets on each football bet, which constitutes his edge. As if he needed it. Twelve to 15 million Americans bet pro football on any given Sunday (or Monday), and unless they're wagering against each other, sooner or later almost all of them lose. In the 1972 season the author set out to see if he could buck the odds, have fun and find true love. 'The National Football Lottery,' to be published this month by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, describes his quest. The following excerpts deal with some of the characters he met from New York to Las Vegas (left). P.S. He won $17,309

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"Sure there's tension and nerves," Lem said. "But you take the greatest dramatists in the world—Shakespeare, Shaw—they couldn't improve on the scripts you get in ball games."

Lem's philosophy of handicapping and betting can be summed up in three maxims:

"It's a game of values.

"You're only as good as your information.

"You don't go overboard on one game. You're dealing with human beings. Anything can happen. A kid athlete could jump out of the fourth story of a hotel the night before a game to impress a girl."

By a game of values Lem means, "You're in a store. There's something for $125, you wouldn't look at it. But if the same thing cost $25, you'd look at it, maybe buy it. It has value. That's how I bet a game. Certain games, certain teams have value."

Lem is saying that there are known statistical quantities that you start with—the Browns shouldn't be seven-point underdogs at home, the Chiefs seldom cover a big spread, the Redskins are a bargain at six but no bet at eight over some teams etc.—and work from there. One thing I've noticed is that this formula betting encourages Lem to bet on more underdogs than I do and on many more than the public does.

From that basic start he works with information, knowledge, opinion. Despite his businesslike approach, he often bets intuitively, picking a team and then looking for reasons why, as I probably do at times. But he knows the game well. We have discussed games, matchups, personnel and so on at length, and we've come to respect and handicap each other's views. This exchange of ideas is included in what Lem calls information, as it should be. As the season wore on he got increasingly disenchanted with injury reports, declaring that the chances of seizing an advantage on such information in pro football are small today.

Does he bet only on games or does he have a side dodge? There are so many bettors in Vegas that he probably saves the vigorish by betting with them when he can, but that's hardly a dodge. He can play a money game similar to scalping, or what is known on the stock market as arbitrage, by "buying and selling points." He can bet early in the week, anticipating the movement of the line, and sell the bet at a more favorable price later in the week, giving him a free bet.

I told Lem that Bob Martin said no player beats the odds consistently. "Every housewife thinks she makes the best spaghetti sauce and every gambler thinks he's the best," he said, tooling along the Strip in his new Mark IV.

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