“Getting Down” – A sports wagering phrase used to describe the act of placing a bet
It has been my experience to know many professional gamblers most of whom worked as hard (or harder) as any young attorney scuttling for recognition in a large, soul-sucking law firm. Unlike the lawyer, a gambler needs a decoy job of some sort to minimize IRS scrutiny and at least two of the guys at Brothers Three Package Store worked there for this purpose. I should note that I’ve encountered lawyers for whom their ostensible occupation was merely a front for lucrative illegal activities so maybe attorneys aren’t the best example but you get the point. Stewart Avenue gamblers were mostly of the football “spread betting” variety although dice games and the occasional multi-day poker matches were also popular. The idea with spread betting is to accurately predict the margin by which a team will win, which is far more interesting and financially rewarding than straight out win/loss betting. For example if the Atlanta Falcons play Seattle then one might reasonably expect the Seahawks to win the game outright. But it might be more interesting for the one accepting the bet (the bookie) to offer a point spread of 7 points to entice bettors to put money on the Falcons – so if Seattle doesn’t win by more than 7 points then the bookie pays off to those with money on Atlanta. If the Bookie knows his trade well then that point spread will result in a predictable betting pattern that can be exploited.
So the bettors interact with “Bookies” who establish the spread (aka “the line”) for upcoming professional and college games though some simply republish this information from a more authoritative source. The act of making the bet is called “getting down” (at least back in the 70s) and the cost of making a bet is the “vigorish” or “vig” for short. The initial line is established early in the week and can fluctuate in reaction to “the early action” especially if that action becomes one sided suggesting then that the line was perhaps unwisely established. Adjustments are possible and the Bookie himself can “lay off” the action onto other Bookies (and so could a bettor) which is known as hedging one’s bet. Just to say that distributing financial liability is not a concept unique to Wall Street. And if all of this sounds like the basis of a financial market it is – a very big one wherein the potential for profitability is significant. Little surprise then that people of all occupations (postmen, CEOs, mechanics, physicians, cops, salesmen) would be attracted to these potential gains. Even less surprise then that guys would obsess over betting decisions because for many it was the only way to pay for a family vacation or the upcoming Christmas Season.
Bookies could be independent or function as a representative of an organized bookmaking outfit that might employ any number of people to insure a well run “sportsbook”. As bookmaking was illegal (and still is) in Georgia then some payoff to law enforcement might be involved although many law enforcement personnel liked to bet – including the occasional Judge. Sports betting was seen as a “soft vice” and as long as there was no major violence and the money wasn’t mixed with income related to drugs or prostitution then it was usually left alone. Many bookies liked to flash it up with large cars, copius neck and hand jewelry, exposed chest hair, and ostentatious consumption of food and liquor. Track suits and athletic wear were popular clothing choices as most of them were overweight. They attracted a certain type of woman – the fast and loose type that enjoyed having access to quick cash. There was this middle-aged dyspeptic bookie who seemed to belch out every word of a sentence in between drags off a no-filter Camel. He was forever gobbling Rolaids that he would chase down with sips of Scotch. (That alcohol and cigarettes might be contributing to his stomach issues was evidently not a concern for him). Another guy had a shaved head and eyebrows like Ming the Merciless from Flash Gordon which he thought made him look all mean. However, his attempted bad boy image was totally compromised by the out of control nose hair which snaked its way out of each nostril.
Some of the novice bookies with pinky diamond rings and gold necklaces learned the hard way that keeping quiet about winnings was better than being pistol whipped in the parking lot by someone who saw them flash a wad of cash in the bar. On The Avenue, Bookies might take your action in person or at The Fireplace or at one of the many Airport Bars like the Scotch House, My Brothers Place, Admiral Benbow, or Modine Gunch’s. The Moose Lodge overlooking the Silver Ribbon was an active bookie site although one needed to be a member or guest of a member to gain entrance. Some action was taken late at night but that was dangerous as most people, including the bookie, were usually too drunk to think clearly. Many phoned in their bets which was a ritualistic process not to be interrupted since a guy might be putting down money on 12 or more teams (maybe double that if including college games) thus accuracy during transmission was essential. In a tone usually reserved for somber occasions such as funerals, a guy would read aloud his picks after which they would be confirmed by the bookie. Once the bet was “down” the tone and mood would lighten considerably.
Most bettors stuck with football season but one of the Brothers Three guys also bet on basketball and baseball. He also took frequent side trips to the dog track in Florida which is how I first became interested in gambling. Terry brought back a track book containing finish times and place information on each dog. Having “read ahead” at school I pointed out that these kinds of details could be used in a process called regression that could predict a dog’s finish time given that a number of assumptions were met. A more involved type of regression could help predict if the dog would finish first, second, or third but just being able to generate a finish time was a helpful start. As far as Terry was concerned I was talking another language so it wasn’t until I actually developed some actual predictions that he paid any attention to me. I would work things out using an old accounting-based calculator though would have to write out intermediate results onto a legal pad as I went. This was a tedious process that had to be repeated to verify results since Terry would then take this information into consideration when making bets at the track. The initial predictions were useful and Terry did better than his normal “baseline” (what he would have bet in absence of the generated information). Remember that this was long before cheap personal computers, Excel spreadsheets, and statistical programs that make quick work of this kind of thing.
The initial period of betting success was due mostly to consistency of conditions at the dog track though I cautioned against aggressive betting as the predictions were aging. No one ever really knew if a dog was underfed, over fed, or had been given a drug to perform better. And of course new dogs would come onto the scene so the predictions would have to be regenerated. Any scrap of information from a track employee could be helpful, “Oh yea – one of the trainers we had for 10 years up and moved to San Diego” or “we cut our chow budget by 10%”. I didn’t always know how to integrate this information into the model but did what I could and the relative prosperity continued. It was difficult to determine to what extent Terry was using the predictions as gamblers have a certain pride in their own abilities that prevents them from acknowledging others especially if it is coming from “some goddamned formula” which is how he originally characterized my idea. Relative to football he was a natural seeker of information and had assembled a national phone-based network that facilitated the discovery of insider details such as, for example, Oklahoma’s quarterback just got dumped by his girlfriend. This would factor into his bet and unless the bookie was equipped with similar knowledge then Terry would usually come out on top. He had a nose for less obvious factors that might be important but it remained difficult to determine the relative importance of these factors. How much weight should you give a particular variable when making a bet ? Is playing in snow more important to consider than if playing without the usual starting Center ? That’s where the regression came in handy.
Though I was never specifically acknowledged for my work, I was given a full introduction to the gambling culture which was incredibly entertaining. No one batted an eye when I showed up at some of these bars – I was clearly underage but no one cared and I got the full brunt of the crazy talk, heavy drinking (though I did not participate – at least initially), and of course the fast women who, quite frankly, scared me. They could be quite attractive but very aggressive and intimidating with their come-ons. An older woman with freakishly large breasts and spidery eyelashes (note the order in which I presented that information) took a liking to me and offered to “break me in” anytime I so desired. But I couldn’t handle the intensity or speed at which the proposal was made. Nor was I particularly interested in having the world know about what I thought should be a private matter. I failed to mention that she made her offer in front of about twelve other men and women all of whom were looking at me going, “Well ?” before breaking into uproarious laughter. Though these guys lived only for the moment and seemed to focus uniquely on sporting outcomes I’m sure that any of them would have made good stock brokers, financial analysts, or even statisticians as they possessed an instinctive understanding of numbers and could easily spot things that ran counter to an existing trend. So where I might be an analytical gambler they were of the intuitive variety. Modern gamblers seem to be combination of the two.
Later when I studied mathematics formally I started to look at ways to maximize the return on an initial pool of money over a series of bets. This was not anything special as I was sure that other people had considered these applications. My overall thinking about math was why bother with it unless it could be practically applied ? Terry would see my calculus text book and took a childish joy in pronouncing the title as “Cal-Koo-Lus” or “Kak-U-Lus”. He liked to chew on cigars and I could tell when he had been thumbing through the book as there would be tobacco juice splotches on various pages. Despite his jokes (and disregard for my book) he respected what the math could do. The problem at the time was that to apply it to football or baseball games was more involved as getting data could be difficult and generating predictions for many more variables was an exhausting process. I was also struggling with how best to integrate this information into a model. Worse, there were humans involved whose behavior varied more than that of the dogs making it more difficult to predict a weekly score. The death knell to all of this was that eventually word got around that someone was attempting to employ a “system” which no bookmaker likes even though bookies themselves commonly used their own systems. It all really came to an end on a personal level when one bookmaker dropped by with one of his goons to quiz me on the nature of “my system” and to suggest a “collaboration”. I feigned ignorance by claiming that it was all just a school project that had gotten out of hand. “Besides”, I said, “it doesn’t work so well on team sports” (which was partially true). I’m not sure he believed me but not knowing anything about the mathematics there was no way he could argue. More importantly he knew that my Father was connected to law enforcement which likely tempered any inclination he had of pushing the matter further – at least by using simple intimidation. I was shy then but not fearful and in the bookie’s mind the fact that I had put together some predictions was evidence enough that I had some options so why continue to lean into me ?
Mathematically assisted betting is now very common and thanks to movies like “Moneyball” there is increased awareness of how statistics has been used by professional sports teams to identify under-valued talent. Baseball in particular now has its own branch of analysis called “Sabermetrics”. There are entire conferences where sabermetricians go to present research results on almost every imaginable angle in baseball. Vegas has also invested in data science approaches to insure that their casinos and book making operations remain profitable. So anyone seeking a short cut or simplistic system to beat the odds is in for a rude awakening as odds making outfits have their own guys working against you. Just to say bring your lunch if you want to go head to head with them because you are going to need it. Back to the bookies – one important aspect of their trade that I have yet to mention is that the more successful ones know the habits of their customers quite well which allows them to exploit that knowledge over time. For example if you know that a guy has a weakness for the home field advantage then why not leverage that info against him ? In particular bookies love bets made out of emotionalism since it usually impairs logic. And online betting is no exception. In fact it is easier for them to look at your betting history and use that as input into THEIR models ! But you still have options in that you can use one or more local guys, Vegas, or go to the offshore services. The distillate wisdom is to use all three to leverage differences in point spreads. It’s not like it used to be – that is for certain. The Stewart Avenue Kid © 2016