The Perils of Prognostication
Several years ago I was in Manhattan for a couple days. A friend of mine works in that city's world of high finance, and he had asked me for investment advice.
Bear in mind that money for its own sake has never interested me. The specifics of the stock market are completely foreign to me. Any sort of career related to that profit-driven, high-pressure ruckus known as Wall Street holds absolutely no appeal. I have vague apprehensions about the tough time my short-term pecuniary habits could create for me when my more circumspect and wealthy friends are basking in future comfortable retirement, but they usually evaporate quickly, giving way to my present focus.
I am, however, reasonably knowledgeable about one aspect of our society that involves the exchange of an extremely high volume of money: sports gambling.
One of my friend's co-workers had won thousands of dollars the previous few years by means of an algorithm he had created for choosing NFL winners against the point spread. My friend wanted to know if he should take advantage of this guy's methodology and wager on NFL games.
"Dad! Telephone! It's [name deleted to protect the gambler]!"
There actually is no need to censor that gentleman's name. In fact, I now am not entirely certain that I remember it correctly. That moment of recognition that occurred when I answered the phone, though, is vividly unforgettable all these years later. His calls to my father were a reliable and regular occurrence. I would then listen to my dad's side of the conversation as he dispensed advice on a slate of college basketball games, their respective point spreads, and how this caller should wager.
Brief aside for those not familiar with "betting against the line": when wagering on athletic contests, rarely is the bettor given the chance to simply pick a winner. A point spread is established to skew the contest so that it is supposedly evenly matched and the bookies can remain even. For example, if Green Bay is favored by Tampa Bay by seven points, a bet for Green Bay requires that the Packers win by eight or more points in order to win the wager, whereas a bet for Tampa Bay would only require that Tampa Bay lose the game by fewer than seven points (or win the game outright).
I do not know what exactly made my father such a trusted authority in these matters, although he did watch far more collegiate basketball than the average sports fan. Perhaps this guy simply wanted a second opinion to reinforce his own. Either way, my dad must have exhibited some knack for it, as the ritual persisted for some time. (For the record, my father was not the one doing the wagering.)
I began my own personal foray into the world of point spreads during the NFL season of 1988 at age 13. Rather than using the established lines that emanated from Las Vegas and were published weekly in the local newspaper, I evaluated the games based on my own "expertise" and created my own point spreads that simply stated which team would win and how much I thought they would win by. I counted a win by that amount of points or more a victory in my favor and tallied the results for each week. Sometimes my point spreads gave me more leeway than a bookie in Vegas would have given me, but just as often I would pick an upset win or create a point spread that exceeded the standard line.
I use the term "expertise" very loosely. In 1988 I knew very little about the many intricacies of NFL football. I also could make the observation that any increased knowledge I have acquired over the last 20 years about statistics, play-calling, and match-ups has not necessarily given my predictive powers any greater potency.
Over the following few seasons, I gave up on the creativity and opted to choose outcomes based on the Vegas point spreads. My father participated as well so that we had weekly and season-long competitions. There were lows and highs in my success. I recall that in the 1989-1990 NFL playoffs I was absolutely convinced that I could not be beaten, going 6-0 through the first two rounds of the playoffs and bragging to a friend that I should have been putting real money on those games. (A dose of humility followed in the NFC and AFC Championship games.) For the most part I hovered around the fifty-fifty mark, which is what you would expect for the supposed even proposition of the point spread.
It became a family game, as my mother joined the contest a couple seasons too. She immediately recognized it as a crapshoot and was not afraid to employ methodologies that Diane Chambers from Cheers might endorse. As Diane plainly stated, "Everyone knows that a bear beats a dolphin." As one might expect fate to humorously decree, my mother posted the best overall record one season.
My favorite high school math teacher learned about my somewhat unusual family contest and asked me about it. I acknowledged the oddity of encouraging a teenage son to predict football games using standard gambling parlance, but I told her that the net result was quite the opposite of encouragement. If I learned anything in those five years, it was that regardless of how much I thought I knew, placing wagers on the NFL with the hope of long-term gains was pure folly.
We paid a brief visit to my friend's co-worker's apartment, and his mechanism was impressive. This was not someone who simply watched the games and formed a preference for winners based on some sort of amorphous mental amalgam of the variables. An extensive Excel spreadsheet tracked the schedule and presumably crunched all manner of variables in determining which team to choose. I did not have time to scrutinize his equations; I would guess that home field advantage, division records, the weather, and a number of other factors were included in his calculations. He was not eager to tip his hand to me. He did, however, reveal one important ingredient in his success. He pointed out that in perfecting his NFL predictions, the choices against the point spreads by certain respected pundits received substantial weight.
That might not seem very surprising. Of course someone trying to win money on a football game should respect the advice of ESPN's Chris Berman, right? It would seem so, but I quickly pointed out to him that over the previous few years I had noted that in making choices against the point spread, many of those acknowledged experts could not even maintain a 0.500 record. Random guessing would likely be more effective. He confirmed that was exactly the secret in this case: his algorithm leaned toward the opposite of the advice of certain commentators in crunching his numbers.
After we left, I told my friend that I did not know if he should invest. As sophisticated and thorough as his co-worker's betting mechanism might have been, it did not seem foolproof and still seemed to carry the unavoidable risks of betting against the point spread in the NFL. To depend upon the faltering of some of those people most knowledgeable about the game did not seem a safe bet. In a competition filled with the chaos inexorably linked to the bouncing of that oblong ball, it seemed as arbitrary as directly linking the uncanny professional football predictive powers of Lisa Simpson to whether or not she still loved Homer (see season 3, episode 14: "Lisa The Greek").
In my adulthood I have entered numerous NCAA basketball tournament pools, even if in my mind those are more akin to lotteries than a true measure of sports insight. I have engaged in contests that involved picking the winners of NFL games without the use of points spreads, including a few survival (a.k.a., "Last Man Standing") pools. However, over the span of several trips to Las Vegas, I have only bet on a total of two NFL games against the point spread. I was reasonably confident in both results. I lost fifty dollars on one and won fifty dollars on the other, which is exactly what one might expect from a coin-flip proposition. I have no serious plans to ever bet on another football game with the point spread in play.
You might be wondering what happened to my friend's co-worker. That season my friend considered investing saw the first instance of a breakdown in the algorithm. Rather than again winning thousands of dollars, the predictions rendered a loss of thousands of dollars.
This past week with writing this column in mind, I asked my friend for an update. Said co-worker has tweaked his spreadsheet and is winning big once again. Perhaps he is closer to truly discovering long-run mastery over NFL point spreads. If someone bets on enough games, he or she does only need to win 51 percent of them to come out ahead. I myself can imagine relatively obscure variables that theoretically could be integrated into a successful mathematical model, but for the most hardcore gamblers the perfect simulation that guarantees any given victory will always be like the mythical will-o'-the-wisp, teasing and eternally just out of reach.
Yes, I remain skeptical. For old time's sake, though, I offer you the following picks for week nine of the 2010 NFL season, using the first complete set of reputable point spreads that I found online:
Buffalo Bills +3 vs. Chicago Bears
Houston Texans +2.5 vs. San Diego Chargers
New Orleans Saints -6.5 at Carolina Panthers
Arizona Cardinals +9 at Minnesota Vikings
Atlanta Falcons -7.5 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
New York Jets -3.5 at Detroit Lions
Baltimore Ravens -4.5 vs. Miami Dolphins
New England Patriots -4.5 at Cleveland Browns
New York Giants -6.5 at Seattle Seahawks
Oakland Raiders -2.5 vs. Kansas City Chiefs
Indianapolis Colts +3 at Philadelphia Eagles
Green Bay Packers -8 vs. Dallas Cowboys
Pittsburgh Steelers -4.5 at Cincinnati Bengals
Warning: these choices did not originate from the aforementioned magical algorithm. I am simply choosing from instinct and this season's football-watching observations. I do not recommend you take my advice, and I will be most impressed if I manage to predict more than seven correctly.
C. Robert Dimitri is nothing more than your average American sports fan that has spent far too many hours in front of the television and has absolutely no further credentials. He reserves the right to change any opinions expressed here; unlike the practice of bandwagon sports loyalty, there is virtue in shifting a position when given new information.