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The Brain That Gave Us The Point Spread

Charles K. McNeil began his working life in 1926 as a math teacher in a prep school in Connecticut, but he later took up gambling as a full-time pursuit, and before he died in 1981, he had become one of the most influential figures in the history of American sport. He is unknown to the general public, and the odds are at least 100 to 1 that not one in 100 gamblers would know him, either. Yet if it hadn't been for this erudite history major from the University of Chicago, the amount of money bet on football and basketball games today might be a fraction of what it is. Charles K. McNeil is the wizard who gave the world the point spread.

Football had been McNeil's favorite sport when he was a young man, but he packed only 138 pounds on a 6-foot frame and was too frail to play in college. However, at Chicago in the 1920s, he came to know and revere the most famous football coach of the day, Amos Alonzo Stagg. McNeil kept in close touch with Stagg throughout his life, but he never dared tell the old man that he made his living gambling for fear Stagg would never speak to him again.

McNeil taught school for several years after graduation, then became a securities analyst for a Chicago bank in the early 1930s. His salary was scant, and he tried to supplement it on his days off by going to baseball games and betting with other spectators in the bleachers. He apparently was encouraged by the results because he quit the bank in the late '30s and began to gamble full-time in Chicago's bookie joints, which were widespread and wide open. As he later told it, he was such a successful gambler that, eventually, the biggest book in town put firm betting limits on him.

Peeved by this, McNeil opened his own bookmaking operation one fall in the early 1940s. There, he introduced his revolutionary form of betting on football games. He referred to it as "wholesaling odds." Before McNeil, gamblers bet on football games using a standard system of odds—2 to 1 that USC would beat Notre Dame, 4½ to 1 that Army would beat Navy, etc. McNeil's idea was a variation of his own personal system for analyzing bets: He would rate two teams and then estimate by how many points one would defeat the other.

McNeil's idea was an instant hit. Bettors crowded into his joint, eager to enjoy this novel way of gambling on football games. When his first football season was over, McNeil introduced point-spread betting to college basketball, too. Within a couple of months, his betting house had become so successful that it had driven out of business the one that put the clamps on him.

In 1950, McNeil suddenly quit bookmaking. He later told a friend he did so because the Mob wanted "to go partners with my brain." But he didn't give up gambling—not by a long shot. In the 1950s, McNeil, by his calculations, bet an average of $200,000 a week on college football and won 60% of his bets. In an average season, he said, he turned a profit of roughly $320,000. At the end of the 1957 football season, he sat down and computed his career results: He discovered that he had been a winner in 25 of the previous 27 years. That's a success rate that most others involved with point spreads can only dream of.

Poor Mac suffered a stroke late in life, which left him immobile and speechless until he died. Except for those final bad years and his concern that Alonzo Stagg might find out about his gambling, McNeil appeared to have no regrets about his life. He once said, "There are three things a gambler needs: money, guts and brains. If you don't have one, you're dead. I've got all three."