One For the Books

January 15, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

The ending of the Vikings-Saints game was one for the books.

By “ending” I don’t mean the fluke 60-yard catch-and-run touchdown as the clock ran out.  I mean the actual ending – the final play, the extra point, which didn’t come until eight minutes (it seemed like 20) after the touchdown.

And by “books” I don’t mean the record books. I mean the bookmakers. That point, or non-point, made a big difference only to them and their customers.

It was also one for this blog. In the early days of this blog, I had several posts that considered the idea of “the wisdom of crowds.” James Surowiecki’s book with that title was much on my mind, mostly because I thought that it was wrong, at least when the topic was football gambling. (See this post, for example.) The basic idea is that for guessing what is now unknown (a lost ship, the outcome of next week’s game, the weight of an ox), don’t ask an expert. Ask a crowd of ordinary but interested people and take the average. Gamblers call that choice the “chalk” – the team (or horse) that’s getting most of the action.

But gamblers also talk about the “smart money.” In sports betting, bookmakers don’t care so much about the crowd. But there are a few people whose action the books do pay special attention to, and not just because the bets are usually large. Last Monday, most books opened the Vikings-Saints game with the Vikings as 3½-point favorites. The public liked the Saints. Two out of every three bets took New Orleans plus the points.

Since bookmakers have a guaranteed profit when the amount bet on each side is the same, bookmakers should then have tried to discourage more Saints money by reducing the points – say from 3½ to 3. Instead, they raised the line to 4 and then 4½, The public may have been backing the Saints, but the smart money, the “sharps,” were taking the Vikings. By the weekend, the line had gone to 5 and then 5½.

With the Saints leading 24-23 with ten seconds left and the Vikings 60 yards from the goal line, it looked like the crowd was right. Then came the touchdown pass to Stefon Diggs. The score was now Vikings 29, Saints 24; the clock showed all zeros. The smart money, the bettors who had gone with the Vikings early in the week, looked very smart indeed. Among Saints backers, those who had bet late and gotten the 5½ came out ahead.

Bookmakers still lost money since a lot of the Saints action had come in on Sunday at 5½. But the touchdown saved them from paying off all those early bets on the Saints.

Then came the bizarre extra point. After the touchdown, with no time left on the clock, everyone thought the game was over. TV crews and others went out onto the field. Players strode gleefully or walked dejectedly to the locker room. The refs had to call them back out for the extra point. NFL rules require it. But there was no way the outcome would be changed, so who cared? Bettors and bookies, that’s who. For all those who had bet the game at 5½, the extra point was the difference between winning and losing.

The Saints weren’t too enthusiastic about things and took their time coming out of the locker room and back onto the field.


When both teams had finally shown up, the Vikings, rather than trying to score, politely took a knee. Game over, finally.
 
It would have been even better for the books –  and worse for the crowd –  if the teams had taken the extra-point seriously. Normally, even with only a few seconds left on the clock, the teams would have lined up for the extra point, the kick would have been good, and the Vikings would have won by 6 points rather than 5. Bookies would have kept all that Saints money.

In the end, the smart money won. As for the crowd, some won, some lost, some got a push.


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