Sage advice from father to spawn in a long-ago magazine cartoon: “Remember, it’s not whether you win or lose, it’s the point spread.”
Carbon-dating the above gag indicates that it can’t predate the mid-1940s, which is just about when one Charles K. McNeil, a math teacher and gambling savant, conceived of what he thought would be a sports-handicapping approach preferable to the time-honored odds method of picking wager winners. With McNeil, instead of “I’ll give you 2-to-1 Yale over Harvard,” it became “I’ll take Yale and give you six points.” Ever since, this has been the preferred way for generations of sports gamblers.
McNeil may have had a lot to say today about a couple of betting-spread numbers had he not succumbed, at age 77, 30 years ago. Would he have taken, for example, the Washington Huskies and the 20 points Saturday (Oct. 22) against vaunted host Stanford? Would he have picked the Seattle Seahawks over at-home Cleveland Sunday (Oct. 23), even given the Browns’ three-point betting edge?
"There are three things a gambler needs: money, guts and brains,” McNeil, in a bygone Sports Illustrated tribute, is quoted as stating. “If you don't have one, you're dead. I've got all three." Actually, there would seem to be four essentials: money, guts, brains and luck. Unfortunately for Dawg partisans, Stanford, in Andrew Luck, has plenty of the latter. One imagines much of the reason bookies make the Cardinal a 20-point fave as of midweek owes to the notion that, with quarterback Luck, Stanford stands to play at least competitively and at best dominantly, especially in the friendly confines of the home stadium.
But is Stanford 20 points better? Against a Husky club that scored seemingly at will against Colorado last weekend (beating the pre-game gambling spread by 16 points) and also won convincingly on the road against Utah?
The answer isn’t so much “better” as “bettor.” It was McNeil’s genius to discover after being shunned for his successes at Chicago wagering salons that a “point spread” didn’t necessarily have to reflect a genuine educated guess about a predicted winner’s strengths and the opponent’s weaknesses. All the spread number needed for legitimacy was to find that critical demarcation that would tempt the optimum number of wagerers on either side. The McNeil approach obviously has made zillions the past 60-odd years for bookmakers, who adjust the spread to balance wagers on both sides of the betting line and collect their vigorish fees from gambling transactions.
The method of setting a betting line can confound many a spectator, especially sports fanatics, or “fans,” for short.
For the approaching Hawks game, consider Cleveland partisans. The Brownies’ 2-3 record and mediocre team stats are comparable to those of the visitors. The Seahawks may gain in the eyes of spread-heads because they actually won at long last in the Eastern time zone before resting for a fortnight prior to the trip to the shores of Lake Erie. Perhaps, then, the Browns are assessed just a token three-point advantage: that typically afforded to many a home team because masses of accumulated stats indicate a predicatble two- to three-point production edge for host opponents.
Some gamblers obviously seek to find advantages by sifting through the ample match-up minutiae of players and their teams. This can lead to folly, of course, exemplified by the conclusions of certain gridiron sages, such as nine-year Hawk mentor Chuck Knox. He famously cited as the key statistic as far as winning and losing in football not the punt hang-times or the successful safety blitzes so much as “points scored versus points allowed.”
The reader will note Knox was alluding to “win or lose” and said nothing about “point spreads.”