Saturday, March 14, 2009

Hard Out There for a Tout

Way, way back in the G.H.W. Bush administration, my boss at the Herald, Bob Sales, let me do a pro football gambling column. The theory was, it would be a common sense counterpoint to our other gambling column, which was very much of the standard "The Jets have not covered on the road in an NFC West stadium with game time barometric pressure under 30.12 since 1973" variety. My idea was to use the space to explore pro football issues that interested me, and hopefully, to pick more winners than losers in the process.

Along about week four of the season, I didn't like any of the games on the card. So I wrote that, pointing out to the readers that there was no law forcing them to bet every week of the NFL season (the laws forbidding them to do so, of course, the Herald never mentioned and still doesn't). Bob let the piece run, called me into his office the following Monday, and told me never to do anything like that again, pointing out the inherent contradiction of a gambling column which advises people not to gamble.

So I have a certain sympathy, limited but real, for the stock pickers on CNBC, who are taking a little heat these days. They HAVE to keep picking stocks, even as the market executes a three-and-a-half pike off the 10-meter board. If they told the audience "sell and buy Treasury notes, or some index fund you don't have to think about," and people took the advice, there would be no CNBC. Which would be for the best, but not for them.

Gamblers/investors don't WANT to know how their games work. They just want winners. And since picking winners is hard work, many are foolish enough to rely on others they regard as authority figures, including, God help them, me.

Late in that season, I hit a bad patch, as all handicappers do, and received a phone call from a loyal reader. Would it be OK, this poor soul inquired, if he stopped betting my picks until I got rolling again?

I was horrified. The idea that people used their money to back my opinions had never occurred to me. I had never read a gambling column except for entertainment purposes, because I had always figured that if any gambler could beat the odds consistently, they would keep their methods to themselves. I assumed no REAL gamblers were desperate enough to take the advice of someone who had warned, in his very first piece, that picking winners was not the essential point of this particular journalistic exercise.

Chastened, I would up around .500 for the year, a five percent loser to the vigorish. My audience could have done worse than take my advice, but my heart wasn't in it anymore. The next season, the Herald replaced me with the extremely enthusiastic and dangerous I.M. Bettor, a veritable Jim Cramer of the gridiron, who may be there today for all I know. I went back to writing about events. It was a tremendous relief to shed the burden of fraudulent omniscience.

It was a profitable (spiritually) enterprise for me if not for Herald readers. Once you've actually BEEN a forecaster, you never accept any forecast at face value again.


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