Bettor Ways to Lose

Today’s the big day, the holiest of all American holidays: Super Bowl Sunday. And yet, I’m having trouble caring, even though I have skin in the game.

Really, as Lynn and I watch commercial after commercial for this or that betting opportunity, many of which seem to involve the over-the-top fountain in front of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, every last man, woman and child in this country ought to have some wager placed on today’s Big Game.

Nevada — where gambling is slightly more legal than, say, Colorado, where you can only play slots in three specified towns while bingo and raffles proliferate as fund-raising opportunities for non-profits, and of course there are all those commercials directing us to online opportunities to part with our money — releases information after each Super Bowl about how much was wagered. Someone named Jack Jones from tells me that in 2019, Nevada sportsbooks recorded $154.7 million placed on this one game. This was the second-highest total [at the time: the article I located came out just before last year’s Super Bowl], behind 2018’s $158 million.

And that’s just the legal gambling tracked by one state. It does not include the $10 to $20 I throw away every year, completely taken in by this simple announcement: “We have squares!”

A football square is a fiendish device, elegant in its simplicity and driven by odds that are better, and perhaps just as lucrative, than the lottery (Colorado-sanctioned gambling that has resulted in lots and lots of money for parks and outdoor recreation all across the state). You’re never going to become a millionaire buying football squares — at least, not among the crowds I traffic in — but you (or I) could win between $150 and $500 tonight.

Except that I won’t. I don’t believe I have ever won any money on any football square I’ve ever bought into. But I might, so every year, unsolicited, I seek out someone’s square and toss away the same amount of money I could use to buy a sandwich. Or, as I did yesterday, Lady Gaga Oreos. (Kara bought them for the fan appeal; I went strictly for the colors.) Something that might make me happy, anyway.

Not that $500 wouldn’t make me happy, but it won’t ever reach my pocket. Just yesterday the Washington Post provided the bad news: I have about the worst numbers anyone could ask for.

Here’s the thing, if you’re one of those rare people who does not have a share in a football square today: no one gets to pick their own numbers. Sometimes you can pick the square that will have your name, although the board I bought into this year was completely random, but the numbers aren’t assigned until everyone’s in place.

Squares look hard and confusing if you’re new to them, but it’s really about as easy as buying a lottery ticket, and you don’t even have to find a serrated coin to scratch that gray stuff off. All you, as a square director, have to do is find 100 people, or 50 people willing to buy two squares each (usually that’s me, but I was restrained this year), and then you run a line of numbers from 0 to 9 in random order across the top and a second line of random 0-9 numbers down the left side.

Then, at the end of the first quarter, if the score is 10-3, whoever has the 0 for the leading team and the 3 for the trailing team gets some money. Other winners are anointed at the half, the end of the third quarter and the final outcome. None of these are going to be me today.

And that’s because I have what I thought were not good numbers, only to have the Post confirm it for me: the worst numbers to hold in a square are 5, 8 and 9. And my numbers are 9 for the Chiefs and 5 for the Bradys, I mean Buccaneers. I can see a team getting to 35, maybe 45, but I’m having trouble where a reasonable football score ends in a 9. C’mon safety, good for two points! Maybe three field goals without any touchdowns. I’m dreaming, aren’t I?

So I knew they weren’t great numbers, but the Post codified it for me. When over $150 million is bet legally in Nevada alone, you can see why the Post might take the time and trouble to figure the worth of every combination in a football square.

Neil Greenberg did just that, and he tells me that my chance of winning, phrased as a return on investment of $1, is 2 cents. Here’s what Mr. Greenberg had to say to me, in his analysis: “Boxes featuring 9|5 or 5|9 are the worst to own for the final score in the entire grid. The odds of either of those boxes hitting for the final jackpot are about 500 to 1, at least based on recent scores.” So, no $500 for me; I should have just invested in more Oreos. Go Lady Gaga!

I did buy my square this year mostly because the square director was in our shop and Kara was handing over money, but I thought it might give me a reason to pay some attention to this game in a season where I haven’t tracked results at all. Being related to a Green Bay Packer clan, down to the early indoctrination of great niecphews, any semblance of my interest went out the window a couple of weeks ago.

I try, sort of. I do like pirates, and there are Buccaneers playing, but I don’t really like Tom Brady, even though one should technically marvel at his staying power. The Chiefs are the rival of the Denver Broncos, but — I realize this is heresy even as I type it — I’m not much of a Broncos fan (although I do like to watch Peyton Manning in his commercials — he’s very self-deprecating and it plays well, no matter what he’s pitching).

I did go the University of Colorado, where a player named Eric Bienemy came along a few years after me. He’s now the offensive coordinator for the Chiefs, although Sally Jenkins of the Post came uncorked a week or so ago that he is not yet a head coach anywhere, repeatedly passed over by younger (and, coincidentally I’m sure, whiter) candidates despite the successes of the Chiefs’ offense. He interviewed for six of the seven open head coaching positions in the NFL, and now looks most likely to renew with the Chiefs for another year. They fully expected he would get one of those jobs.

I suppose, given all that, I would prefer to see the Chiefs win — except for that damnable 9, which means I would like their kicker to put it through the uprights three times and call that good for their scoring. Or seven touchdowns with points after would get me to 49.

49-35. That would be a great game, wouldn’t it? Along with a Peyton Manning commercial where he stumps for Lady Gaga Oreos. Then I might care about the Big Game after all.

I could not find Lady Gaga singing about her Oreos like I wanted, but there’s enough in this video to make an entire blog post. An Oreo doomsday vault in Norway? More research is called for.

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