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Most human beings have a larcenous streak in their make-up. If the streak is wide, they grow rich or go to prison, sometimes both. If the streak is narrow, they play long shots.
As far as I am concerned there is no other sensible explanation for a presumably rational person making a bet on anything when the odds are a hundred or more to one. The fact that an astonishing number of such bets are made every day merely proves my point: the desire to get something for nothing, or a lot for a little, is as common as dandruff.
People who possess this narrow streak, I have noticed, have a good deal of difficulty with simple arithmetic. They have trouble balancing their check books, helping their children with long division, and figuring out their share of the bill in a restaurant where they have gone Dutch with somebody. When anybody tries to explain to them how betting odds are arrived at, they get the sort of look in their eyes that is common to people who stagger out of a movie theater into the late afternoon sun after seeing a double feature. I know all about this. I am one of these people.
I number among my close friends a first-rate mathematician with a fine gift for clarity of expression. In phrases so simple and forceful that they would elicit the admiration of Dean Swift, he has through the years explained to me over and over again why, when I bet on a hundred to one shot, I am almost literally throwing my money away. His forceful phrases, like his invincible logic, accomplish nothing.
I leave his well-intentioned lecture and always return, like the drunkard to his bottle, to the backing of long shots. I do not consider this an indication of a lack of character on my part, or even a contempt for the law of probabilities. I have as much character as the next fellow (whose identity we won't go into here), and I have a healthy respect for all laws.
But I have in my day seen enough apple carts lying on their sides to convince me that when it comes to betting—as in the case of another, and in some respects allied, human activity, namely, love—the most reliable guide is neither the statistical table nor the hot tip, but your own heart.
One Saturday last fall, for example, I drove up to New Haven with my two young sons to see Yale play Dartmouth. My sons had never before been to a college football game. They were properly excited by all the things that should excite boys aged seven and eight: the size of the crowd and the hot dogs, the color of the pennants and the faces of the old grads, the antics of the cheer leaders and the blare of the bands. Soon after we were settled in our seats, a half hour before the game began, I noticed that my youngest son John appeared to have lost interest in the colorful spectacle taking place on the field. He was completely absorbed by the conversation of two men sitting directly in front of us.
After a moment or two of eavesdropping, I learned that they were in the midst of making a bet on the game and were rather heatedly discussing the odds. It was the sort of discussion that normally would bore me stiff. Yale was heavily favored to win. But not so heavily that a man with a larcenous addiction to long shots could find anything interesting in the odds.
After much argument, during which the Yale marchers on the field spelled out with their bodies a beautiful Y, the two men settled the terms of their bet. The man in the camel's hair coat, who was betting on Yale, spotted the man in the Tyrolean hat 13 points, and gave him three-to-one. I heaved a mental sigh of relief and turned back to see how skillful the Dartmouth boys would be in spelling out their human D.
I never found out, because at this moment my son John leaned forward and, with that curious mixture of shyness and brashness that only a very small boy can achieve, tapped the shoulder of the man in the camel's hair coat. The man turned.