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This Is the Guy Who Will Determine Whether Your Super Bowl Bet Wins Or Loses: Inventor of the Point Spread, Charles K. McNeil

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This Sunday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers will meet in Dallas for Super Bowl XXIIWERSHUIWOIXJH. Early predictions expect over $90 million to be wagered at the sports books of Las Vegas, but the American Gaming Association maintains that Nevada's legal sports wagering represents less than 1 percent of all sports betting nationwide.

All this betting would be quite a bit different if it weren't for the point spread--which leaves us with some questions: where did it come from? Who thought it up? When? And Why?

Fortunately, an 1986 Sports Illustrated article tells us all we need to know about the point spread and its history:

"Charles K. McNeil began his working life in 1926 as a math teacher in a prep school in Connecticut, but he later took up gambling as a full-time pursuit, and before he died in 1981, he had become one of the most influential figures in the history of American sport. He is unknown to the general public, and the odds are at least 100 to 1 that not one in 100 gamblers would know him, either. Yet if it hadn't been for this erudite history major from the University of Chicago, the amount of money bet on football and basketball games today might be a fraction of what it is. Charles K. McNeil is the wizard who gave the world the point spread."

The piece goes on to explain:

"McNeil taught school for several years after graduation, then became a securities analyst for a Chicago bank in the early 1930s. His salary was scant, and he tried to supplement it on his days off by going to baseball games and betting with other spectators in the bleachers. He apparently was encouraged by the results because he quit the bank in the late '30s and began to gamble full-time in Chicago's bookie joints, which were widespread and wide open. As he later told it, he was such a successful gambler that, eventually, the biggest book in town put firm betting limits on him.

"Peeved by this, McNeil opened his own bookmaking operation one fall in the early 1940s. There, he introduced his revolutionary form of betting on football games. He referred to it as "wholesaling odds." Before McNeil, gamblers bet on football games using a standard system of odds—2 to 1 that USC would beat Notre Dame, 4 to 1 that Army would beat Navy, etc. McNeil's idea was a variation of his own personal system for analyzing bets: He would rate two teams and then estimate by how many points one would defeat the other.

"McNeil's idea was an instant hit. Bettors crowded into his joint, eager to enjoy this novel way of gambling on football games. When his first football season was over, McNeil introduced point-spread betting to college basketball, too. Within a couple of months, his betting house had become so successful that it had driven out of business the one that put the clamps on him."

Officially, McNeil died of a stroke late in life. However, knowing something of the seedy underbelly of the gambler's life, I have my doubts. I can almost hear it now:

"Gee, Charles...sure would be a shame if something were to happen to you's. Y'know, like if you's got a stroke or somethin'..."

POSITION:  No positions in stocks mentioned.