The Green Mess

In the 1905 World Series, Giants utilityman Sammy Strang had one plate appearance where he struck out. This entitled him to his complete share of the gate, the equivalent of around $33,000 today. Over a century later, another sportsman would only appear briefly yet cause a great amount of money to shift hands.

On January 9, 2022, in an otherwise undistinguished game between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers, an injured Draymond Green made a ceremonial appearance at tipoff to be able to “start” with returning Klay Thompson before immediately fouling an opposing player and leaving. The result was that those who bet the under on his player props triumphed. However, this was not an issue of just him getting hurt quickly. His plan was announced shortly before the game, creating a window for people for hammer said unders.

It was an example of what Jason “Spreadapedia” Weingarten rightfully summed up as “One word: Greed”. And it demonstrates what I consider the odiousness at both sides of the sports betting industry. A big reason for the outsized losses is the presence of the “Single-game parlay”, where you can make parlay/accumulator bets (ie, you get a bigger payout, but they all have to win), on different elements of one game. Parlays are notoriously more profitable for the books overall, which is why they push them. However, the nightmare scenario is that all those blockbuster parlays (usually strings of giant favorites) actually hit. So yes, the books were playing with fire, and got burned.

However, I also have surprisingly little sympathy for the people who tried to take advantage of the error and got restricted for it. One of the secrets that a lot of casual observers don’t know are that many, if not most pro bettors (Protip: DO NOT BE A PRO SPORTS BETTOR) are people who pounce on slow/off/etc… lines instead of being super-handicappers. It’s why their complaints about being constantly restricted have fallen on deaf ears to me. And for something so obvious, I’m extra-uncaring about their “plight”.

Review: The Thousand Dollar Touchdown

The Thousand Dollar Touchdown

Time to review another thriller with a main character that has a perfect thriller name: Colt Ryder. When I saw that the premise of The Thousand Dollar Touchdown involved sports and gambling, I knew I had to read it. Ryder, the wandering “thousand dollar man”, helps people for that amount. He also kills people in the process. This time his client is the wife of an NFL quarterback. Her brother-in law has died suspiciously, and she thinks he’s been throwing games.

This is very much a 51% book. None of the elements are really that bad, and it’s short and breezy. But it falls short of being genuinely good. A bit of this is the premise: Someone who’s studied the actual way that the sports leagues have been two-faced behind sports betting, the actual composition of their management, and the actual composition of the gambling underworld will notice the oversimplifications and inaccuracies. But since cheap thrillers do not have to be accurate per se, I can wave that off.

A bigger problem is the style. It’s written in this first-person classic hardboiled type that I don’t care the most for, and that style is not the best suited for an action-packed climax where the main character performs ridiculous feats. There’s also a bit of tonal clash. The main character’s approach involves Jack Bauer-ing his way to information by beating people up until they talk, but he’s kept alive in a Dr. Evil Deathtrap after being captured because of plot.

This is a 51% book, but it’s a more interesting to review “mean 51%” than a flat “median 51%”.

Review: People’s War

I’m doing it. I’m breaking all my rules. I’m reviewing an in-progress internet online alternate history piece by an author I overreacted to in the past, at one point calling his TLs the “worst ever”, something which is not true and which I apologize for. I speculated as to why I felt as negative as I did in the very review itself, and with years of hindsight I can say that, sadly, it was just personal stress mixed with tunnel vision. The actual view I have of them is what I said I’d have felt in isolation before-middling Hackett-fics, no better or worse than say, Operation Zhukov and not really the most able to build a long review around.

But I think this new TL is worthy. I feel I’m calm enough to look at it more objectively, unlike my past axe-grinding. Like with New Deal Coalition Retained, I feel that this isn’t an obsession and that one post on an internet timeline won’t overwhelm dozens of those on other topics far less controversial to me. And I feel it does have something to say about the genre. I don’t want to come across as gatekeeping or saying someone shouldn’t do anything that they and others enjoy. I’m just giving my personal opinion. And of course, if my opinion on it changes as new updates emerge, I will gladly make an update post.

The timeline is called People’s War, and it’s about a surviving East Germany.

What I consider People’s War to show actually has a parallel in sports betting. What William Leiss calls “manual research”.

Now obviously literature is not a zero-sum game like sports gambling is. Everyone has to start off with the surface level details, and not everyone can or wants to do Kirov-level simulations. But this kind of ultimately surface research applied to a pseudo-Hackett pure exposition style has made me see the strengths and weaknesses of it.

The biggest strength is that there is a lot more verisimilitude. This is something that Young Grognard Me took for granted because I started with nonfiction books and wargames and went backwards from there. Now I know how rare even nominally accurate military fiction is in a world of “machine gun pistols”, “Flamethrower M60 Abrams”, and “A-130 helicopter gunships”. More to the point, this and the WW3 TLs that preceded it and which I got far too angry about are far more sensible than the clearly just tossed carelessly out “stock photo and a wikibox” stuff like the infamous New Deal Coalition Retained Part II. It’s one thing to arguably lean too heavily on Hackett, Bond, and primary sources as Lions Will Fight Bears and its successors did. It’s quite another to avoid them completely in favor of BIG NUMBERS, as NDCR Part II did.

But Hackett, Bond, and the WW3 TLs were dealing with a hypothetical conflict that had decades and decades of simulations, analyses, and sources dedicated to it. Said documentation is a big reason why it’s up there with the American Civil War and World Wars for wargaming and “hard” alternate history. But what happens when you’re dealing with something that doesn’t have that paper trail?

Trying to Hackett-ify a 1980s technothriller scenario is one thing. But this TL is trying to Hackett-ify what’s essentially a 1990s technothriller, where a surviving East Germany ruled by Honecker’s widow comes into conflict with the western world. Now looking at the reams of studies of a theoretical conventional Fuldapocalypse is one thing. But where are the think tank papers for “Fighting a somehow surviving ex-Warsaw Pact state post-USSR, especially with the hint of threat balancers you’d find in a Larry Bond novel?” They aren’t there. The closest are clear surface details like the names and amounts of weapons that end up feeling close to the more shallow “here’s the exact designation of a Scud TEL” than what effect barrages of those missiles would have in practice.

And this is my objection. Because there’s less opportunity to look, this sort of thing just feels kind of shallow to me without either simulation/deep analysis or just setting up the basics and running with a conventional story. And the TL format prevents the latter.

It’s still far superior to the outright Calvinball of NDCR’s Neo-Timurid Empire or postwar AANW’s “Eastern Siberia as an American state.” The military details are still far greater and more plausible than 3 million Soviet troops sloooooooooooowly advancing against 2 million NATO ones. Compared to “historical fanfiction” AH, it is better.

But there still doesn’t like a real solid base is there. And by the standards of either wargaming or literary fiction, I feel it doesn’t reach its potential.

Especially because this is a redo of a previous concept for a surviving East Germany war that was ultimately abandoned in part because, unsurprisingly, its base was too one-sided strategically. This is what I think goes full circle back to the “Manual Research” video, because Leiss specifically talks about the follies of using manual research for an obvious mismatch. Manual research can tell you what common sense and the odds show-that the powerhouse team against a paid-to-lose punching bag will easily win. But it can’t tell you how likely the opponent is to cover the inevitably massive point spread.

The force regarded as the best non-Soviet Warsaw Pact military can definitely still threaten the characters in a normal narrative and can definitely still do more damage than Saddam’s army did. It’s just that this and other works like it sit in an awkward middle ground between hard and soft. I wouldn’t call it a trinket, but it still feels less than whole.

Soft and Sharp Sportsbooks

Here’s a great post on the two main kinds of sportsbooks, “sharp” ones that allow skilled bettors to play and actively shift their lines, and “soft” ones that focus more on marketing/entertainment, just follow the lead of the sharp books regarding lines, and will, often massively, stop skilled bettors.

As for the ethics question of it, well, I do think soft books are unethical the way that other types of gambling are unethical. After all, I remember very well all of those New York State Lottery commercials promising riches just one ticket away. And the highest margin business model of sports betting is often called the “parlay lottery” for good reason.

Though to be fair, the odds have to be staked in favor of the house for the sportsbooks to survive at all. The analogy I use is basketball. If it’s a soft book, you’re playing a rigged carnival version. If it’s a sharp book, you’re playing one on one against a pro player who’s good at stealing the ball even from other pros. As betting expert Joseph Buchdal put it:

How about this one [warning label]: “95% of sports bettors will lose at UK bookmakers. The other 5% will be banned. 99.9% of sports bettors will lose at bookmakers who let you win.

On Sports Betting Media

The legalization of sports betting in the United States has brought about a wave of media devoted to it. And even in the offshore era, there were no shortage of websites talking about gambling. After looking at sports betting media, it didn’t take me long to sour on it. Even with less direct knowledge, it came across as being extremely shallow at best and, more often, something sinister seeming. It felt like trying to goad people who knew basic sports trivia into playing a stacked against them game (even back then, I knew the fundamentals of how gambling worked).

And after finding out more, studying more, and getting the spark that would lead to The Sure Bet King, I feel weirdly proud to say that well, I was completely on point. The conflicts of interest are there. Sportsbooks themselves and their loss share affiliates (people who get others to sign up to the books in exchange for a share of the house winnings) obviously have no direct incentive to help punters win and much motivation to help them lose. There’s a reason why sportsbooks hype up the people who hit a monster parlay/accumulator (where multiple outcomes all have to win), because those are where the house has the biggest edge. The idea is to get Joe Sportsball Fan to be convinced that if he follows his gut and knowledge of trivia, like how Aaron Rodgers doesn’t have that clutch spirit, then the jackpot will be his.

Even more innocently, I think (no pun intended) that even without this conflict, a lot of sports betting shows are just basic sports opinion pieces given a gilded gambling coating. The indispensable “Sports Truth with William Leiss” channel (who I actually thanked in the dedication to my book, and with good reason), has two videos showing this, which is dubbed the “think tank.” There isn’t any actual statistical analysis (not that most sports hosts could really do it beyond “Oh, he’s hitting .230”), just stuff like “I think that the Giants offense isn’t ready yet so I think the Colts will cover.”

Then there are the few sharp bettors who are (of course) magnified on social media. To be honest, after seeing what it entails, I would chose one of my old jobs that involved hauling carts back to a rickety old, cramped supermarket, often in bad weather, for six days a week, in an instant over being a professional sports bettor. It just feels almost wasteful, like a strange form of slumming from people who have the drive and/or intelligence to succeed at other careers that are far less zero-sum and far more relaxing. Learning that a lot of the “sharps” win not by being better handicappers but by a combination of manipulating the lines and doing the equivalent of coupon-clipping and bargain hunting, further drove my opinion down.

In fact, despite me maintaining every bit of negative feelings for the sleazy tactics of the bookmakers, I actually began to take their side to an extent regarding the banning/limiting of winners (one of the most vocal complaints from the sharps). And it wasn’t just “oh, they have to make money.” It was more like “oh, they have every right to keep munchkins from plundering them. Good for them.”

And then there are the touts, or tipsters. These pick-sellers are nearly all scam artists, and when I saw how they worked, I knew that one would be the perfect topic for a novel. Touts got amplified because for the longest time they were the only sports betting figures who could operate semi-openly (see the infamous infomercials), and they took advantage of it post-legalization.

Finally, there are the various governments who treat sports betting as a tax-producing cash cow. New York is particularly ham-fisted in this regard, which is even more counterproductive because there’s the far more lenient New Jersey right next door. So yeah, there’s that too.

So I came away from my research with even less regard for the sports betting industry than I had before-and more of a feeling that it would be great subject matter. So I wrote my first full-length novel about that very topic. And I had lots of fun doing so.

Review: WagerEasy

WagerEasy

It took me a long time to actually read the sports betting-centric thriller/murder mystery WagerEasy by Tom Farrell. This is simply because I was writing my own book centered around that industry, and didn’t want any, however accidental, cross-contamination or subconscious comparisons. So I only took it up after I finished The Sure Bet King.

That being said, I needn’t have worried (at least in hindsight). WagerEasy is a first-person thriller where the same general subject matter is the only thing it has in common with my own novel. It’s very much an apple to an orange.

So how is it as a book? The answer is-very good, even with me not being the biggest fan of first-person narration or the “hardboiled” style it tries to go for.While I feared it would be just dreary and grubby at first, WagerEasy turns out to have high stakes in a clever way and effective action set pieces. In fact, one of the action scenes in the middle of the novel had me going “Really?” And I meant it in a good way. Like, this could have been written by Jon Land. And Farrell definitely knows his stuff concerning sports betting itself (although I was a little surprised there wasn’t more discussion of the reputation European sportsbooks have for banning/ultra-restricting winning bettors). So I enjoyed this a lot.

Announcing My Newest WIP Novel: The Sure Bet King

What have I been at work on the past couple of months? The answer is a novel in progress, and one devoted to something that’s totally different from the typical scope of Fuldapocalypse. I’m making a mostly nonviolent “pop epic” (the greatest inspiration I can see is Sidney Sheldon) about a sports betting “tout”. Touts are basically people who sell picks/betting advice. It is not a profession with a good track record or reputation, to put it mildly.

I can’t give a formal arrival date for the novel yet as it’s still far from complete even in rough draft form, but rest assured that I’ve been hard at work on it. It’s a very exciting experience-this novel has been very fun to research and very fun to write.

Another Theory For Boxing’s Decline

There have been many good explanations for the decline of boxing’s popularity in American popular culture. (I say in popular culture, as many big fights continue to draw big crowds and make big bucks). The usual and well-founded ones range along the lines of…

  • General sleaziness (which is not a new thing-an amusing example of this is how even by the 1960s, the sport’s reputation had shrunk to the point where new strips in the Joe Palooka comic didn’t actually show him boxing).
  • The division of the sport into many rival fiefdoms, from the “alphabet soup” sanctioning organizations to promotions and confusing weight divisions.
  • The sport being confined to niche premium television (it’s a chicken-egg question whether this was a mistake that walled off its customer base or a reasonable solution because its base and relationship with network television was declining anyway).
  • Competition from other sports, not just in terms of viewers but also in terms of what athletically talented people want to pursue. Just look at the career paths of Ken Norton Senior and Junior. This has also affected the other major American classic sport, baseball. Tom Brady was a talented baseball player in high school who was drafted by the Expos and Patrick Mahomes’ father was an MLB pitcher.
  • Because of the first three points and a fairly unique obsession with perfect records, an abundance of noncompetitive squashes, with actual quality fights hard to set up.

The last point leads into a new theory I saw floating around the internet-which is that the mass of lopsided fights leads to lopsided odds that are neither competitive nor fun. A big favorite gets the winner very little money (especially once one considers sportsbook limits) and big losses if their opponent does pull a Buster Douglas. A big underdog is highly unlikely to win.

This is an especially tough problem in a sport that has been closely tied to gambling for its entire existence. Boxing isn’t as fused to betting as, say, horse racing is (In my personal, albeit limited experience, the only people who care about non-Triple Crown races are gamblers), but I’d say it’s definitely more so than the other major sports. While I don’t think poor odds are the only reason it’s fallen out of favor, it certainly doesn’t help.