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Chicago: Birthplace of the Point Spread



    Let me tell you a story about a great Chicagoan, an unsung inventor whose innovation is familiar to everyone who has ever read the small type in the sports pages, but whose name is unknown even those who take advantage of his life’s work every day. 

    Charles K. McNeil was a history major at the University of Chicago, but his real talent was with numbers. After graduating, McNeil taught math at a New England prep school, then returned to Chicago to work as a securities analyst at a bank. To supplement his small income, McNeil bet on baseball, basketball and football games, first with friends in the stands, then with bookies. McNeil was such a shrewd bettor that he was able to quit his bank job and live on his winnings. But he was a little too shrewd for his own good: he beat the house so often that his bookie put limits on his action. 

    McNeil responded by opening his own sports book -- and coming up with a bet that put his old bookie out of business. Instead of offering odds on football games, he offered a point spread. Given a chance to bet their favorite teams at even money, gamblers flocked to McNeil's joint. He was soon the most popular bookie in Chicago, and his point spread became standard for betting on football and basketball games. (It also made possible the 1950-51 scandal, in which players arranged to win, but not beat the spread.) 

    As the General Assembly considers two more gambling bills this week -- another doomed slots-at-the-tracks proposal and a measure to legalize Internet gambling -- it ought to consider making Illinois the second state to allow sports betting. Since the point spread was invented here, we should get a cut of the action it produces. Right now, all the money on the Bears -3 over the Panthers goes to Las Vegas casinos, offshore Internet accounts, Petar, the bookie taking bets at the Serbian coffee shop, and the guy selling squares in your neighborhood tavern.

    Illinois has five major league sports franchises, so the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB would all complain about gambling tainting the integrity of their games. That’s why Las Vegas can’t get a team. You know what? Those corporate hypocrites need to shut up. They all know their fans are betting, and they market their games accordingly. Do you know why Monday Night Football became such a hit? Because it was the get-even game for guys who’d taken a beating over the weekend. And who buys the NFL Sunday Package to watch the Cardinals play the Seahawks? Fantasy football players, and guys with money on the games. In England, betting shops are as common as 7-Elevens in the U.S., but no one believes they lead to fixing of soccer matches.

    Unlike building new casinos, or installing slots at racetracks, legal sports betting would not create a new forum for gambling. It would simply cut the state in on gambling that’s already going on. It’s estimate that bettors wager $100 billion year on pro football alone -- that’s ten times the amount bet legally on horse racing, a sport with a much smaller following. 

    McNeil was ultimately driven out of the bookie business when the Outfit tried to make itself a partner in his operation. If we legalized sports betting, the Outfit would be driven out of the bookie business, too.

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