Sacrifices for his Team
My father was not amused.
He said I was probably influenced by the young man I had brought home last time I visited.
I, however, was amused. I laughed. I told him gambling had been the last thing the young man had been interested in.
My father’s library had become dim in the early twilight. My father drained the last of his drink and looked toward the door to his study. I could see he thought about going for another bottle, but then he looked at me.
He said it was dishonorable to bet against one’s own team. And utterly shameless to bet against one’s national team.
I said I knew that’s how he saw it but that was not how I saw it.
My father was not interested in how I saw it. He tried to take a last drink, but he had taken the last drop already. He rose and crossed to the door to his study, keeping his back to me all the way.
He returned from the study with a fresh drink. No offer for me. He sat in the large leather overstuffed chair near the window and watched the sky darken.
I told him I had not bet against our national team. I said better yet I had sacrificed for our team.
The world championship game was the following day against our rivals from the land to the north, the land of snow and ice.
My father pretended he didn’t hear me. I knew I didn’t sound as convincing the young man had been when he had explained it to me. He had not been interested in gambling, but when I told him my frustration with the many losses of our national team and my related gambling activities under my father’s old theories about gambling with honor, the young man had presented a new theory with a new ideology that I decided to try at the next opportunity. A year had passed since the young man had left the big city, and I had only just found the nerve to try the new system.
As with most things the young man had said—when he had bothered to say anything at all—it was at once simple and compelling. It was also radical, which is why it had taken me so long to try it. But however simple and compelling he had made it sound, I could not find the same words to explain it to my father—much less hope to convince him it was a valid approach.
I asked my father if he was tired of the disappointment that came with watching our national team lose almost every important game. The team was just good enough to win many unimportant games, but then lose the big ones. I asked him how much he had lost betting on our team.
He ignored me. His jaw tightened, and he blinked a couple times as he continued looking out the window at the dusk.
I told him the worst was the few times our national team were favorites and won but failed to cover the spread. I said your team wins, and you should feel excited, but instead all you think about is how much money you just lost because they didn’t win by enough.
My father looked at me and said no, the worst was when you bet on the other team as the favorites and they win but don’t cover the spread. Then your team loses the game and you lose the money.
That was the opening I had been waiting for.
I told my father that was why I wouldn’t play the spread.
The young man had been dumbfounded when I had explained the way the spread worked.
He had said it was strange that a handicapper’s guess of the final score of the game would attract so many people to bet their money.
I explained that the spread was not the handicapper’s guess of the difference in the final score—by how much the winners would beat the losers—but rather the number that the handicapper thought would attract equal amounts of bets on both sides.
The young man had said so the handicapper never lost, and he made his money on his commission.
I told him it’s called the vigorish.
He wrinkled his nose and said so the spread had nothing to do with the competition.
I had to admit no.
The young man said he would only bet on winners and losers. Then at least the outcome was directly related to the competition.
I explained to him how the money line worked. Much simpler. You just picked a winner and the payouts were adjusted according to the handicapper’s estimate of the strength of the favorite. A strong favorite winning paid out a trifle while a big underdog winning paid out a fortune.
The young man had asked why anyone would ever play the spread when the money line was available.
I had only replied that I didn’t know.
But thinking about my conversation with the young man gave me some ammunition to use on my father. I told my father that playing the spread gave four outcomes with the only good one being if your team wins and either covers or beats the spread. The other three outcomes were bad. Your team as a favorite wins and fails to cover the spread, your team as an underdog loses but beats the spread, and the worst of all your team as an underdog loses and fails to beat the spread.
My father slammed his glass on the arm of the chair. He said and with my foolish theory—with only two outcomes—both outcomes were bad. Either your team loses or your team wins. And if it wins, you lose your bet.
He had a point, but what threw me for a moment was the force of his delivery, not the argument itself.
Once I remembered the question the young man had asked me, I regained control.
I asked my father how much he would spend to make sure our national team won. How much would he sacrifice for his team.
My father looked at me out of the corners of his eyes. I know he had tried to fix matches many times involving teams from our homeland, but even he didn’t have the clout to fix a game at the international level.
I let him off the hook. I said just hypothetically speaking, if he could pay a certain amount and be guaranteed our national team would win the championship, how much would he pay.
He had relaxed and looked out the window again.
I said whatever that number was, wouldn’t he pay it as a sacrifice to help his team win.
My father said it’s impossible. He said it softly, as much to the window as to me.
I said it was not.
My father swallowed his drink and waited for my explanation.
I said if he took that amount as a sacrifice and placed it on the money line for our rivals to win then it amounted to the same thing.
My father looked at me like I was an idiot. I had grown used to that face. He didn’t have to say that it in no way guaranteed our team would win. It was written all over his face.
I said still two outcomes, right. You make a sacrifice for your team to win by betting money on the rivals, and if your team does win, then you are happy. You are happy with the win, and you are happy to know that the sports gods accepted your sacrifice. You feel like you contributed to the win with your sacrifice. If your rivals win, then the sports gods give you your money back plus more—and sometimes much more—as compensation for their disregarding your sacrifice, for failing to honor the guarantee you hoped you were paying for.
My father took a drink.
I said of course that approach only worked when you cared about the outcome. If you don’t care about the outcome of the competition, then no matter how you bet, all you think about is how much money you win or lose.
Darkness had come outside. All I could see in the window was my father’s reflection. He took another drink.
Our butler entered and began closing the curtains. When he arrived at the window where my father sat, he waited patiently for my father to move.
My father did not move. His gaze remained transfixed in the distance.
Then he snapped out of it. He asked our butler what the latest spread was on the following day’s game with our rivals to the north, the land of snow and ice.
Our butler told him.
My father told our butler to double his bet on our homeland’s team. He said he was sure that even if our rival to the north, the land of snow and ice, won the game, they certainly would not cover the spread.
But they did. By a wide margin.
With my compensation from the sports gods, I drank a toast to the young man—and to my father’s honorable obstinacy.
To read more stories in the series, see the Becomes One Hundred Stories page.