I once had a friend who believed in lucky sweat socks.
So great was his superstition, he was certain the 100 percent cotton talismans played an integral role in every final score. If his favorite football team won a game, he didn’t credit the coach or quarterback, but the socks on his feet.
And if his team won two or three times in a row, the socks he wore on game day became more important to the outcome than any foam finger, beer fridge, or TV remote. His socks not only were forcing fumbles and completing passes, but they also contributed to the alchemy of his betting decisions.
“If the socks are hot, bet a lot,” he’d say.
During the season he sometimes had to recruit fresh socks when the luck ran out of the old pair (or when his friends began to complain of the smell), but he clung to his sports-betting belief system with religious zeal.
Mister Socks probably would love the new CNBC reality TV show “Money Talks,” which is scheduled to premiere in September. It follows the life of controversial Las Vegas sports tout Steve Stevens (also known as former telemarketer and convicted fraudster Darin Notaro). On his pay-for-prognostication sports betting website, Stevens/Notaro has confidently advertised winning more than 70 percent of his games. Seventy percent!
Who needs lucky socks when you can buy 70 percent winners?
What you do with your socks and money is your own business, but longtime gambling consultant and math and probability expert David Sklansky warns you to keep your pants on before investing with any tout who shouts that loud. Something reeks about Stevens/Notaro’s numbers, and Sklansky has a nose for such things.
Sklansky doesn’t have his own reality TV show, but he has written 13 books on gambling, poker and other subjects. He has won three World Series of Poker bracelets. He also testified before the National Gambling Impact Study Commission. He even created varieties of gambling games for the late casino man Bob Stupak that helped make his old Vegas World casino a magnet for the masses.
“God can’t pick 70 percent,” Sklansky says. “Not unless he uses his power to actually see the future. But if instead he only relies on his omnipotent handicapping abilities and is forced to pick more than a few games a year, he will almost certainly fall short. Especially if he is betting on a major sport. The reason is the inherent variance in the game and the fact that point spreads are almost always reasonably accurate.”
With the college and professional seasons just starting, Sklansky uses football to illustrate his point:
“Because of the vagaries of bouncing balls and all the other stuff that adds some luck to outcomes, a team will do six points better than expected about one in three times. Or six points worse.”
A team favored by 4½ points, for instance, will win by 10 or more about one third of the time, but it will also lose by 2 points one third of the time.
“In the long run, they will win by more than 4 about half the time if they were to play the same game over and over,” Sklansky says. “But the actual outcome will be at least six points away from 4½ about two thirds of the time. Simply because of luck.”
That means even a perfect handicapper, over the course of a season, can’t hit his number 70 percent of the time.
Sklansky asks aloud whether CNBC knows this, and I’m wondering whether the network cares more about accuracy than ratings. (My money’s on ratings.) And what does that say about CNBC’s other supposedly accurate shows on other areas of business such as investing in the stock market?
“If they’re naïve about this, maybe their advice about Wall Street can’t be trusted, either,” Sklansky says, adding that sports and stock touts are sometimes hard to tell apart.
Without an appreciation of the bouncing ball of probability, sports bettors wind up believing in their lucky socks, and even guys like Steve Stevens.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 702-383-0295. Follow him on Twitter @jlnevadasmith.