Betting against the odds with odd betting

January 2020

Back in the 50s, my father used to say that the difference between a stock broker and a bookie was that a bookie knew he was a crook. His point was that a stock broker and a bookie both sell gambling services, but for some reason, society had decided that a bookie was doing something illegal while a stock broker was thought of as a pillar of the community.

“It’s easier to lose a lot of money betting on a stock than it is betting on a horse. They’ll even lend you money to bet on stocks,” dad used to say. He talked about “bucket shops” in the 20s. They allowed anyone to place a bet (as little as a dime) on whether a stock would rise or fall in the next few hours. “How is that different from betting on a horse?” he would ask.

What was really odd, dad pointed out, was that betting on horses was legal if you did it at a track, but a felony when done with your local bookie.

My father also believed that both stocks and horses had active “fixers.” There was always someone trying to get a stock to go up, or to crash (short sellers make money when stocks go down). And race fixing was a well known activity of “the mob”.

When he graduated from Harvard in 1932, during the depression, my father had a terrible time getting a job. He sold Hoover vacuum cleaners for a while, making extra money playing piano at the morning pep rally.

“It beats as it sweeps as it cleans…..”

Betting on horses

Then he got a job in Rhode Island as a repo man. It was his job to repossess cars on which loan payments were late. He was a small man, only 5’6”, and car owners sometimes intimidated him making him leave without the car. But one day, this big tough guy, who looked like a mobster, nicely asked him to come back later in the week.

“It’s feedbag week at the track,” the guy said. “Horses that haven’t won any serious money this year are set up to win and collect enough money to pay their feed bill. I’ve got a horse running tomorrow that’s scheduled to win. I’ll give you the info.”

My father agreed, and went to the track the next day. He bet a few bucks on the horse, a long shot, and watched it come in first. The day after that he went back to get the car. The guy took out a wad of bills and paid off the whole loan.

Many years later, I went to that same track in Lincoln, Rhode Island with a group of classmates from Brown. We placed bets together, maybe $30 a race, and won one or two, but mostly lost. Then we came across a horse we all liked based on his record. We collected $50 and sent Rabbi Boom Boom to the window to place the bet.

The horse got off to a good start and hung in there while we all cheered wildly. Then at the far turn he faded, coming in fourth. Rabbi Boom Bloom cheered.

“Rabbi, what are you doing? We just lost $50.”

“I realized when the race started that I bet on the wrong horse. The horse I bet on went off at 99 to 1. I was petrified our horse would win. You guys would have killed me.”

Trot, trot to Foxboro

That was in 1963. I confined my gambling to greyhounds for many years after that. But in the 70s a friend with whom I worked became, along with a few of his buddies, the owner of a trotter that hauled sulkies around the track at Foxboro Raceway (next to the Patriots’ stadium). They had an exciting couple of years with that horse, but no night was more exciting than the night they got investigated for fixing a race.

Their horse was running and they all showed up, but they didn’t think it would win, so they didn’t bet more than a couple of bucks on it. Halfway through the race the driver saw an opening and pulled ahead. Two horses lined up behind and blocked the rest of the drivers. Their horse won.

The race had been fixed. And the racing judges naturally came after the horse’s owners. But the boys hadn’t fixed it. Two other drivers conspired to block the competition hoping they would be able to place big bets without bringing suspicion on themselves.

If Marty and his buddies had bet on their own horse in any substantial way, the plan would have worked and they would have been blamed.

Sometime after that, Marty and the boys were at track for their weekly betting party. The guy they called the guru because he tracked all the horses using the stack of programs he carried with him, says to Marty:

“Marty, you believe in numbers?”

“Sure, guru, what are they saying?”

“Well, this is the 7th month in the 77th year, and in the seventh race the number 7 horse is making his 17th appearance.”

They talked about this for a bit, and decided to put $200 on the nose. The horse came in seventh.

The numbers talk. You just gotta know what they are saying.

Going to the dogs

Marty was also a tout. For a while he wrote a nightly tip sheet for dog racing at Wonderland in Revere. One night I went to the dogs with Marty and using his tip sheet we lost the first five races. People at the next table were also using his tip sheet and losing. They were upset. I threatened to tell them that Marty had written it, but he said “NO, not yet, my big pick of the night is in the eighth race. We’ll make it up there!”

So we waited for the eighth race. When it came up, we realized we had lost so much on the early races, we didn’t have enough money left to make anything more than a nominal bet. The dog came in first, but we went home losers on the night.

Later in that same meet, Marty called and told me he had a good guess for the Superfecta that night. A Superfecta requires that you pick the first four dogs or horses, in order, in a race. The payoff is usually quite big. I copied down his numbers and planned to drive to the track after work.

Unfortunately I left the sheet with the numbers in the office. I did my best to remember them and placed the bet when I got there. When the four races were over, all the numbers had come up, but not in the right order. Instead of, say, 1,5,6,3 it was 6,3,1,5. I really wanted to see the sheet I had left at the office.

In the morning I did. It said 1,3,6,5. Two right, but no cigar. So, It was good that I left the sheet at the office, and had I been a bit lucky I could have remembered them in the correct order and won several thousand dollars.

I dabbled in gambling after that. Marriage and kids required a lot of attention.

The wonders of the lottery

When Mass introduced the lottery, I shifted some of my attention to the new games. I studied the odds on some of the early games, and figured that so much money went to the state, there almost no chance of coming up a winner, especially on the big number bets.

There was, however, one small bet that was worth the money. The odds of winning the three-number bet in Mass Cash were a thousand to 1; but the payoff on one number, 999, had been exceeding $1,000 when it came up both because 999 was not a popular bet and the formula they used to distribute winnings took away from the four-number bet and piled on to the three-number bet.

I explained this to my friend Marty, who has an intuitive grasp of probabilities, and we decided to bet 999 for 30 days. Marty would place the bet. On Saturday, two weeks later I was telling another friend about my experiment and I opened the newspaper to show him the number. It was 999.

I called Marty. To make a very long story short, he had not had enough cash to buy all 30 days, so he bought what he could, and the ticket had run out 24 hours ago.

Betting with credit cards

In his 50s my older brother Dave, a programmer, was offered a deal he should have refused. For more than a year, he sat in an office doing essentially nothing, on full pay, while the computer system of the company he worked for was transferred to the company that acquired his employer. They felt they needed at least a couple of people who knew the system present in case there were problems.

During that boring time, when he wasn’t playing chess, he applied his college level math skills to the Mass lottery, and, unfortunately came to a very different conclusion than I had. He decided he could support his family by buying large numbers of lottery tickets. This eventually led him to $100,000 in credit card debt and bankruptcy.

There was one incident during that time I want to record.

Lottery relativity

One night, Dave had a dream about the lottery. The message was “bet Uncas.” Uncas is a famous native American who worked with the English settlers and after whom a town in Connecticut is named. Dave wasn’t clear how to turn the message into lottery numbers. He figured out where in the alphabet each letter was and bet those and made a few other guesses.

When the number was drawn none of his numbers was close. But when he thought about it, the winning numbers were the last two digits of the birth years of his six uncles.

Is betting bad or good?

It is both. But in today’s more open environment it’s hard to remember that, when I was growing up, you wouldn’t think anything was good. Liberals resisted gambling because it took money from the mouths of starving children. Conservatives opposed it as immoral. Economists thought it was a regressive tax. Sports executives claimed it would poison sports, not noticing that the illegal versions already had. Everyone had their reasons.

But almost none of them would have outlawed betting on stocks which is a form of gambling that is not readily available to lower income people. That always seemed hypocritical to me.

Today we are rapidly moving to legalize all forms of gambling. I think that’s good. We can tax it and use some of the money to help those who, like my brother, became addicted, as well as their families..

For most of us, gambling is a pleasant diversion. For some it is more.

I often think about what one pundit said about the necessities of life.

“We all need three things in life: Something to do; someone to love; and hope.” For some of us hope comes in the form of a lottery ticket.

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