Most human beings have a larcenous streak in their make-up. If the streak is wide, they grow rich or go to prison, sometimes both. If the streak is narrow, they play long shots.
As far as I am concerned there is no other sensible explanation for a presumably rational person making a bet on anything when the odds are a hundred or more to one. The fact that an astonishing number of such bets are made every day merely proves my point: the desire to get something for nothing, or a lot for a little, is as common as dandruff.
People who possess this narrow streak, I have noticed, have a good deal of difficulty with simple arithmetic. They have trouble balancing their check books, helping their children with long division, and figuring out their share of the bill in a restaurant where they have gone Dutch with somebody. When anybody tries to explain to them how betting odds are arrived at, they get the sort of look in their eyes that is common to people who stagger out of a movie theater into the late afternoon sun after seeing a double feature. I know all about this. I am one of these people.
I number among my close friends a first-rate mathematician with a fine gift for clarity of expression. In phrases so simple and forceful that they would elicit the admiration of Dean Swift, he has through the years explained to me over and over again why, when I bet on a hundred to one shot, I am almost literally throwing my money away. His forceful phrases, like his invincible logic, accomplish nothing.
I leave his well-intentioned lecture and always return, like the drunkard to his bottle, to the backing of long shots. I do not consider this an indication of a lack of character on my part, or even a contempt for the law of probabilities. I have as much character as the next fellow (whose identity we won't go into here), and I have a healthy respect for all laws.
But I have in my day seen enough apple carts lying on their sides to convince me that when it comes to betting—as in the case of another, and in some respects allied, human activity, namely, love—the most reliable guide is neither the statistical table nor the hot tip, but your own heart.
One Saturday last fall, for example, I drove up to New Haven with my two young sons to see Yale play Dartmouth. My sons had never before been to a college football game. They were properly excited by all the things that should excite boys aged seven and eight: the size of the crowd and the hot dogs, the color of the pennants and the faces of the old grads, the antics of the cheer leaders and the blare of the bands. Soon after we were settled in our seats, a half hour before the game began, I noticed that my youngest son John appeared to have lost interest in the colorful spectacle taking place on the field. He was completely absorbed by the conversation of two men sitting directly in front of us.
After a moment or two of eavesdropping, I learned that they were in the midst of making a bet on the game and were rather heatedly discussing the odds. It was the sort of discussion that normally would bore me stiff. Yale was heavily favored to win. But not so heavily that a man with a larcenous addiction to long shots could find anything interesting in the odds.
After much argument, during which the Yale marchers on the field spelled out with their bodies a beautiful Y, the two men settled the terms of their bet. The man in the camel's hair coat, who was betting on Yale, spotted the man in the Tyrolean hat 13 points, and gave him three-to-one. I heaved a mental sigh of relief and turned back to see how skillful the Dartmouth boys would be in spelling out their human D.
I never found out, because at this moment my son John leaned forward and, with that curious mixture of shyness and brashness that only a very small boy can achieve, tapped the shoulder of the man in the camel's hair coat. The man turned.
"You want to bet me?" John said timidly.
The man stared at him in astonishment. So did I. To the best of my knowledge, John had never in his seven years made a bet on anything. Certainly not with total strangers. The man started to grin.
"Who you for?" he said.
"Dartmouth," John said.
This, too, was news to me. Until that morning, when I had explained before we left the house who would be playing in the game we were about to see, neither of my sons had ever heard of either Yale or Dartmouth. Why should they? I am a C.C.N.Y. man myself. The man's grin grew wider.
"How much you want to bet?" he said.
"A dollar," John said, and he astonished me further by pulling a crumpled dollar bill from his pocket. "Here."
"That's a lot of money," the man said. "Where'd you get it?"
"I saved it from my birthday," John said.
"Maybe you better ask your daddy first," the man said. "He may not want you to lose that much money."
"I won't lose," John said.
The man's eyebrows went up.
"You never can tell," he said.
"I won't lose," John said.
The uninflected certainty in his voice was a little unsettling, as though he had announced that on this day, for reasons that made sense to him but were none of our business, the sun would not set.
"Well," the man said, "I think you better ask your daddy, anyway."
John looked at me. I nodded. After all, it was his own money. John turned back to the man.
"My daddy says it's all right," he said.
"Okay," the man said with a laugh. "Same bet I made with my friend here. I'll spot you 13 points, son, and give you three-to-one."
"No," John said. "I want to bet a dollar."
"I know," the man said. "I'll spot you 13 points, and give you three-to-one."
"No," John said. "Just a dollar."
The smile on the man's face grew a trifle strained. I could hardly blame him. I smiled back at him and nodded again, to indicate that I would help straighten matters out, and leaned close to John.
"You can bet your dollar," I said. "That part of it is all right. What the man means is that Yale has to get 13 points before it begins to count against Dartmouth. If Yale gets 13 and Dartmouth gets only six, let's say, then you still win the bet, and instead of collecting only one dollar, you'll collect three. Okay?"
John shook his head.
"No," he said. "Just a dollar. I want to bet a dollar. He should bet a dollar, too."
The man laughed. Not very heartily. By this time quite a few people around us were watching and listening.
"But that's even money," he said. "I'd be cheating you, son, if I bet you even money. Dartmouth hasn't got a prayer. I'm willing to give you three-to-one."
John shook his head again.
"No," he said stubbornly. "Just a dollar. I bet a dollar. You bet a dollar."
The man looked nervously at me. I' did not envy him. The people around us had started to grin and nudge one another. I looked at John. Like most parents, I am continually astonished by the facets of character and temperament that my children turn up almost daily for my uneasy inspection. I did not know precisely what was going on in John's mind. But I know John.
He is not afraid of new experiences. But he likes to tackle them in his own way. This way is not always comprehensible to others. I could see that being taken to his first football game, and overhearing his first discussion of betting odds, had catapulted him into a hitherto unsuspected area of life.
And I was certain that in John's mind, which is a good one, he had once again worked out his own method of exploring the new terrain. I saw no reason for confusing him by insisting his method was wrong before he had an opportunity to try it.
"If that's the way he wants it," I said to the man in the camel's hair coat, "I guess that's the way it will have to be."
The man shrugged. I could see that he regretted having become involved in what had started as a cute interlude with a small boy and, somewhat to his irritated astonishment, had mushroomed into something quite different.
"Okay with me, mister," he said. There was a slight edge in his voice. "But you know what's going to happen."
As it turned out, I didn't. Neither did he. Or, for that matter, anybody else. Dartmouth beat Yale 32-0, in one of the major upsets of the year.
On the drive home, during which John sat in happy silence, clutching his two one dollar bills, I thought it my duty as a parent to point out to him a hard fact that, while it might dim his present pleasure, would be useful to him later.
"If you had taken the odds that man wanted to give you, and to which you were entitled, you would have won three times as much," I said. "Instead of two dollars, you would now have four."
"I know," John said in the untroubled voice that belongs only to the very young, "but all I wanted to win was one dollar."
I have not yet had time to explore this answer for all the meanings that most surely lie buried in it. At the moment I am content to draw what seems to me a reasonable inference: my son John may never grow rich, but he'll probably never end up in prison, either.
His larcenous streak isn't wide enough.