Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

A Mathematician’s Revenge

May 22nd, 2009 · 1 Comment

Delaware’s future as the new Vega$ East may well hinge on the microstate’s supreme court. A “sports lottery” law was recently passed, but the specifics of how it’ll work are still unclear. Yesterday, the Home of Tax-Free Shopping’s most learned judges heard arguments from two parties: Those in favor of single-game betting, and those who prefer a parlay system. The rub here is that Delaware’s constitution may ban games of skill. So does it take any mental chops to bet a single game? One lawyer’s argument went as so:

Bouchard attempted to establish that a single-game bet, also known as a straight bet, is permitted under the law and that a betting system that relies on a point-spread or “line” cancels out the skill necessary to win an athletic contest and makes chance the determining factor for a winning wager.

This, of course, is the genius of the point spread—in theory, if it’s perfectly set, there will be an equal number of winners and losers. This innovation has allowed sports gambling to grow exponentially around the world—you could very well argue that Vega$ couldn’t exist without it. And so Sin City’s fathers would do well to hold an annual parade in honor of the unjustly forgotten mathematician who invented the spread: Charles K. McNeil:

McNeil taught school for several years after graduation, then became a securities analyst for a Chicago bank in the early 1930s. His salary was scant, and he tried to supplement it on his days off by going to baseball games and betting with other spectators in the bleachers. He apparently was encouraged by the results because he quit the bank in the late ’30s and began to gamble full-time in Chicago’s bookie joints, which were widespread and wide open. As he later told it, he was such a successful gambler that, eventually, the biggest book in town put firm betting limits on him.

Peeved by this, McNeil opened his own bookmaking operation one fall in the early 1940s. There, he introduced his revolutionary form of betting on football games. He referred to it as “wholesaling odds.” Before McNeil, gamblers bet on football games using a standard system of odds—2 to 1 that USC would beat Notre Dame, 4 to 1 that Army would beat Navy, etc. McNeil’s idea was a variation of his own personal system for analyzing bets: He would rate two teams and then estimate by how many points one would defeat the other.

McNeil’s idea was an instant hit. Bettors crowded into his joint, eager to enjoy this novel way of gambling on football games. When his first football season was over, McNeil introduced point-spread betting to college basketball, too. Within a couple of months, his betting house had become so successful that it had driven out of business the one that put the clamps on him.

Actually, forget the parade. Dude deserves a gold statue in front of Caesar’s Palace.


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