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Bad Beats and Arduous Wins

I thought that I would briefly divert from political discussions, to tell a few stories from the world of gambling, specifically, betting on sports. I know that this is not a subject which would interest too many people here, but the psychology of it, the ups and downs, is intriguing, even if one does not care a bit whether Duke beats North Carolina, or Penn State triumphs over Pittsburgh. And I have few stories which you might enjoy.

The term “bad beats” is used a good deal now, not only in sports betting, but poker or any gambling game. The term essentially means, a really upsetting loss, that you think should never have happened. Some use it about any loss in a bet, but it should be limited to those where there was no way you should have lost (you think), but unaccountable things happened. And sometimes that really is the case.

There is a sports anchor on ESPN, Scott Van Pelt, who during the football season, will devote a segment on Monday night to “bad beats.” It is quite entertaining. He shows moments from a particular game where it is almost certain that the bettors on one side will win, but then somehow they do not. Now, always note that one can bet either side of a game, so that one person’s bad beat is another person’s remarkable win.

Sports betting, in football or basketball, involves the oddsmakers coming up with a pointspread intended to equalize bets on either side, since they take an additional 10% on losing bets, which is known as the “vigorish.” So let’s say Penn State is playing Temple in football, and everyone knows Penn State is better, so they make them a 14.5 point favorite. That means that if you bet Penn State, they have to win by more than 14 points to win the bet. If you bet Temple, you can win the bet if they lose by 14 or less, or even somehow win the game. Winning a bet is known as “covering the pointspread,” by the team which does.

So there are all sorts of situations where the game winner itself is not in doubt, but every bettor is on edge as to whether the pointspread will be covered. And sometimes the two conflict. For example if you are taking an underdog in football, and getting 10.5 points, and your team is behind by six with a minute to play, you do not want the ball, you want the team which is ahead to simply run out the clock. If you have the ball, your team is going to throw passes to try to get the winning touchdown, and sometimes they throw an interception, and the other team runs it back for a touchdown, and wins by 13 or so points, depending how they play the extra point. In any case, you lose a bet which you should have won, your team was in the game all the way, but the score does not reflect it.

That has happened to me on a few occasions, and it is not fun. I well remember a Monday Night football game between Pittsburgh, the favorite, and Jacksonville. I was in Las Vegas, where I would go every weekend during the football season for about four years, until I was just worn out from the travel and the tension, and then having to go back to work and handle my legal cases. But it was a lot of fun an escape from the daily grind, and I did pretty well, though the $400 a week for plane trips and hotels and such things, obviously reduced my winnings. Anyway, I bet Jacksonville getting 5 points or so. They led most of the game. I then had to take a taxicab to the airport, but I got there in time to watch the game on TV while waiting for the plane. Pittsburgh had scored late to go ahead by two points. That was all right, unless Jacksonville threw an interception run back for a touchdown. What they did, was move the ball, trying to get close enough for a field goal to win the game by one point. They got to 4th and 1 at midfield, and I did not want them to make the first down with about 50 seconds to play, because if they did not, Pittsburgh would get the ball, take a knee, win by two, and I would win a nice amount.

Well, they made the first down, and drove down to around the Steelers’ 28 yard line, where they set up to kick a possible game winning field goal. There was only one possible way to lose the bet, which was if Pittsburgh somehow blocked the field goal attempt, and ran it back for an unnecessary but spread-covering touchdown. And that is what they did. As most of the people at the airport watching the game cheered loudly, I watched the Steelers block the kick, and then some guy run it back for 75 yards, rather than just running out of bounds, and Steelers coach Bill Cowher, apparently incensed that he did not, ran down the sidelines screaming at him all the way. Well, that was very disappointing, but fortunately I had won money for the week, so it just reduced it by a substantial amount. I have never forgotten it, though, nor so many stories, though not usually as dramatic as that.

Well, I could tell hundreds of these, but I promise I will not! I will just tell one rather amazing story, which I cannot remember having ever seen before or since. This was a basketball game between my alma mater, UCLA, and Texas A&M, in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2008, I think. UCLA was a very good team, Texas A&M was dangerous, and both coaches slowed the game down, so I thought the pointspread of about UCLA -8 was too high. But I did not bet it; maybe the game had started earlier, as tourney games may do when they are the second of two, or I just hesitated.

So A&M played very well and led at half. by three, I think. So now I decided to bet, on the halftime line (you can bet just on the second half score) which meant I was getting worse odds than had I bet the game from the start. They made UCLA a -6.5 favorite, then it went to 7, then 7.5, but it kept jumping before I could make the bet. So I bet A&M at +6.5, not as good. It meant that A&M needed to win the game, or lose by less than four points. Now, for those who might ask, why would I actually bet against my school; well, UCLA could win by 1-3 points and then would win the game, and I would win my bet as well. And if they lost the game, I would feel bad enough, and I might as well try to win the bet, as I still thought it was a good bet.

Here comes the really interesting part. Texas A&M continued to play well, and widened the lead, then UCLA started to catch up. With about a minute to go, they tied it up at 47-47. Then A&M missed a shot, and Russell Westbrook, who has since become a big NBA star (though I have no interest in the NBA) scored with about 12 seconds to go, to put UCLA up 49-47. So now what I wanted was for A&M to play for the last shot, as they would likely do, miss it, and the game would end. The big risks were that they would miss, and foul UCLA with one second to go, and UCLA would hit two free throws, and win by four points, and I would lose my bet by a half point. Or A&M would make the shot, tie the game, and it would go overtime, and UCLA might win by four points or more, and I would lose the bet.

So here is A&M, running the clock down for the last shot….6 seconds…5…4…. then suddenly Westbrook steals the ball from the A&M player, and starts dribbling towards their basket. He is ahead of them, all he needs to do is dribble out the last two seconds, but he is trying to score, and if he does, I lose the bet. I see the clock on the screen, there is a light over the basket which when it goes red, means the game is over, no matter what the clock says. He is at the basket with less than one second, the red light goes on, and he puts up the shot just it does, and he makes it. But the game is over, the referee waves off the basket, the final score is 49-47, UCLA wins, I win $450!

The online sportsbook (this is fully legal) credits my account $450. But as I am watching another game a few hours later, the station puts the earlier scores up, and they show it as UCLA 51 Texas A&M 47. ???? Apparently someone decided to count the basket. I call up the service which puts odds and scores up, and the man I talk to is also upset, says that he saw the light go on, but they simply ignored it, this is not right, but there we are; maybe they will fix this later. I do not think so, but maybe.

The next day, I look, and the score is still listed as 51-47. I lost the bet, because I did not grab the right halftime line, and because the basket which was originally waved off, got counted The account takes away the $450, also subtracts another $495 (the bet plus the 10% risked). I am not at all happy about this, but there is obviously nothing I can do. I keep checking all day, but it stays at 51-47.

The next day, I come home, and I look at the score again, just in case, and it is listed as 49-47! What?! Apparently when the score and statistics were to be officially recorded, the referee went to someone and noted that he had waved off the basket, so the right score should be 49-47, and they changed it for the official score. Now, they really did not have to do that, they could have left it, but they didn’t. And then, there was the real worry that the sportsbook, having presumably paid out the bets to the UCLA side, would simply refuse to pay out again. But I called them, said, “the score changed officially!” and they did credit me, and I won the $450.

If someone wonders if maybe bettors or oddsmakers got this changed to the right score, this did not influence the game bet, only the second half bets, which would almost certainly not be of major importance to very many people. So that referee, just wanting to be scrupulous, managed to fix the score, two days after the game was played!

Now, I found out that what had happened was that the scorer and timekeeper at that game, had made a mistake. He gave UCLA credit for the extra two points. He did not notice the referee waving off the basket. I knew him! He was an attorney in my field, on the other side. I often sparred with him, he was smart and would never give an inch in cases, but was honorable about it. He had been the scorer and timekeeper at UCLA home games for years. I guess he got this assignment because the game was played in Los Angeles, where that round just happened to be set. I ran into him in court a few week later, and said, “That was quite something at the end of the game.” He said, “Yeah,” tried to explain how he made the error. I said lightly, “You almost cost me $495!” He didn’t say much, and was probably embarrassed about his error, which did not mean much to him, but did to many others, as Brent Musburger would sometimes say when announcing a game

So that is a little foray away from the important news of the day, and the worries and concerns we have about the political landscape, and a little window into a multi-billion dollar industry. and the ups and downs which are part of it. Bad beats and arduous wins. As a host of a sports talk show used to say, “Those hotels in Vegas keep getting higher each year,” meaning that you don’t really want to seriously try to beat the house with money that you need. In my former career as a sports handicapper, I did meet someone who did, and who was a legend there, but he was very rare.

3 Responses

  1. This post gives me flashbacks, William. I never could understand betting, although you were once very good at explaining that over-under thing. I appreciated it. Then I proceeded to immediately forget everything you told me. Don’t take it personally. I can’t figure out time either. Pacific time? Is it earlier or later than Eastern time? Don’t ask me.

    I no longer follow sports at all. I completely lost interest several years ago. However, I do hope your teams are doing well!

    • Well, the Dodgers finally won the World Series after 32 years. UCLA football is awful, five straight losing seasons. UCLA basketball is improving a bit, but is not a national force. Not close to the glory years of the 1960’s, when UCLA football had three four top ten finishes, and UCLA basketball won five national titles.

      • Belated congratulations on your beloved Dodgers’ World Series win! I am very happy for you. I’m sure your father was watching and enjoying the games, too.

        Peace, William. Stay well.

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