What Are The Odds

The odds are a barometer by which to measure your expertise and challenge your sanity.

They are intended to confuse, not to educate. Their goal is to create anguish and countless telephone calls to friends, family and business associates rather than generate some spare time with the family on a sundrenched weekend. Any presumption that there is a giant computer digesting statistics accumulated over the ages, and then spewing forth the results showing the likely differential between one team and the other is right out of Disney. Nor is there a black belt maven ensconced in some closely guarded office in Las Vegas with an Einstein-like knowledge of sports and a determination of how one team should fare against the other on a given day.

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There was once. He was Charles K. McNeil who began working as a math teacher in a prep school in Connecticut. Before he died in 1981, however, gambling had become full-time pursuit for him and you can bet that his name is unknown to almost everyone that has ever placed a wager on a sporting event. How did a history major from the University of Chicago change the industry and cause wagering to grow exponentially over the years? McNeil gave us the point spread.

He was too small to play football in college but, in Chicago of the 1920s, he was fortunate enough to meet the most famous football coach in the nation, Amos Alonzo Stagg. The friendship lasted all their lives but the coach never knew of McNeil’s ties to gambling. From teaching McNeil became a securities analyst for a Chicago bank in the early 1930s. A small salary sent him to baseball games where he sat in the bleachers and bet with other fans. The result was good enough to allow him to leave the bank in the late 1930s and start gambling at the Windy City’s many betting establishments that were as open as Lake Michigan. He did so well that limits were placed on his action. That was enough incentive for him to open his own bookmaking operation in the early 1940s. It was time to be different as well.

McNeil introduced “wholesaling odds.” Bettors had always been faced with a standard system of odds; 3 to 1 that Chicago would beat New York, 5 to 1 Michigan would beat Wisconsin or 2½ to 1 that the Fighting Illini would take Ohio State handily. When he wagered he would rate the teams and estimate who would win and by how much. Sound familiar? He converted that into the point spread, as we know it today. It was an instant success, forced some others out of business, and was quickly expanded to include basketball. He quit the business in 1950 but continued to gamble very successfully until he suffered a stroke in later years, leaving him immobile and speechless until he died.

The baton soon passed and there was a time when Bobby Martin created the odds for sporting events and was as close to a walking legend as there has been within the industry—a connoisseur of numbers. Yes, he was that good. Martin succeeded and, while the odds changed once the numbers were public, he was the man that pulled the trigger on the starter’s gun, dropped the flag and told the betting world to get “on your mark.”

When he was no longer in the picture a protégé emerged: Michael Roxborough. He understood odds making. He had watched the veteran and past master. He became as adroit and well informed as Martin with the increased benefits of technology. “Roxy,” as he was known, advantaged computers, records, databases, and a vast infusion of information from contacts around the country. He strove to be as good as Martin had been. He succeeded and for years was “the man.” He became the “dean” of numbers in his own right. It worked for everyone until he tired of it. The task was then given over to committee. The offshore businesses that made their own lines erupted like a volcano quiet for centuries. Casinos and sportsbooks that had placed so much faith in Las Vegas Sports Consultants, Roxy’s firm, began to question the credibility of the numbers posted as Roxy turned his attention elsewhere. It was burnout in the world of gaming.

Offices in Antigua, Costa Rica and Curaçao began to post the line and Las Vegas turned its attention there. Remember, the chore of the odds-maker is to establish a number—the points you take or lay, the chalk or the dog—that will impact upon the final score; the imaginary score arrived at by simple addition and then a plus or minus for the result. Betting is not a fun pastime. It is business. You come to win, not to dally with numbers and root for the home team. You can sway the odds in your favor by the right choice, given the numbers that you are allowed to deduct or add to your choice, at the discretion of the sportsbook or bookmaker. The odds are meaningful. They are a decisive and pivotal element of your decision. Bob Martin and Michael Roxborough are no longer making the line. That is to your advantage. Those who have undertaken the role are understudies. Your edge is that Bob Martin is enjoying his grandchildren these days and “Roxy” Roxborough is more than content basking in the sun-drenched South Pacific. Their legacy is safe and the seat of power they left behind is gathering more dust than old Tony Perkins’ movies.

The one person that should be making the odds these days has, instead, relegated himself to previewing games, handicapping them, and offering his expertise to bettors with a knowledge of what the line should be. Ken White, from this writer’s perspective, has always wanted to be the Las Vegas odds maker that was destined to follow in the footsteps of Martin and Roxborough. He has the qualifications, reputation and awareness of what should, and should not, be. His sources of inside information are an accumulation of contacts over a few decades of study and research. Ken has the instinct of a cat prowling for food on a dark summer’s night and is as practiced and penetrating in his analysis as a Harvard professor preparing his students for medical school.

Why has this sapient Solomon of the sums and scores of gambling not advantaged his gaming license to challenge the current odds-makers? I honestly do not know. Perhaps his role as a handicapper, consultant to casinos, and the best odds-maker that never was, suits him. Insiders know of him, and respect him. They value his judgment. His opinion, in concert with the line put out in the Caribbean, is the plumb line of betting.

What are the odds that things will change any time in the near future? Until recently, not very good. But, there is an under current that is permeating the industry; a cry for change, a need for dependability, belief, and confidence. Gambling is a giant business, rocketing upwards in the billions of dollars and there are many factors building this skyscraper of wagering. But it all starts with those opening words, “what are the odds?” The response ordains, like a minister consummating marriage vows, the first step in a marriage of yourself to a team from whom you will, unlike the couple wed, divorce yourself within hours. What are the odds? They are the numbers that can turn a Sunday afternoon into a celebration of joy or a disaster to mirror that of the Titanic. Know as much about them as you can before you make a choice of team or dollar amount. Or, go back to watching the Learning Channel.