Gambling illustration

(Illustration by Daniel Hertzberg)

Point man

Charles K. McNeil, PhB’25, was the point man in a sports gambling revolution.

Charles K. McNeil would bet on anything. An afternoon at Wrigley Field involved not only a wager on the outcome but an array of side bets about the game and beyond, like whether a stumbling drunk in the bleachers would fall down. During the depths of the Depression, McNeil even laid odds on the next person to be fired at the bank where he worked as a securities analyst.

Successful beyond the wildest dreams of most gamblers, McNeil lost on that one. He put the bank president at 3 to 1 to be ousted, but the boss got wind of it and canned McNeil instead. “I had myself at 8 to 1,” he told William Barry Furlong in a 1977 New York Times Magazine story that recounted McNeil’s influence on the pastime that became his profession: sports gambling.

After graduating from Chicago, he taught math at New York’s Riverdale Country School, where his students included a young John F. Kennedy. McNeil didn’t have much money then, but his analytical ability took enough out of bookmakers’ pockets even on low-stakes football wagers that they started asking him how he did it. With a point system, McNeil confided, that analyzed the competing teams to predict the difference in the score. He suggested that the bookies follow his lead and offer bets based on his method. “If the bookmakers were ever to achieve mass marketing of bets, he advised them, they’d have to switch to something like his point system,” Furlong wrote.

Unlike odds, which can confuse casual gamblers, limit interest in lopsided games, and tilt action toward the favored team, the point spread encourages betting on both sides. The “line,” as it’s known, handicaps every game to create a theoretically equal chance that either team could win.

If bookmakers determine that, for example, the Chicago Bears are six points better than the Minnesota Vikings, wagers on each team reflect that differential. Bears bettors “give” six points, meaning Chicago has to win the game by more than six—to “cover the spread”—for them to win the wagers. Minnesota, meanwhile, “gets” six points. Even if the underdog Vikings were to lose, provided it’s by five or fewer points, they would “beat the spread” and pay off for those who bet on them.

The incentive to “take the points”—attracting wagers on the underdog—and the point spread’s simplicity compared to esoteric odds serve the bookies’ interests in both the volume and balance of bets on any given game. McNeil made a convincing case. “The best evidence,” Furlong concluded, “suggests that some bookmakers listened closely and began using the point spread in New York City.”

This came to be known as the invention of the point spread, credited to McNeil, a stubborn nugget of lore that’s as plausible as any explanation, if impossible to prove. Bookies didn’t carbon copy their correspondence for posterity, but the stories passed down point to him. Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder, the NFL handicapper on the CBS pregame show from 1976 to 1988, said he first heard of the method of wagering from McNeil during World War II. And in 1986 Sports Illustrated proclaimed, “Charles K. McNeil is the wizard who gave the world the point spread.”

There are those who doubt that the point spread was, in fact, his intellectual property. “I don’t know of anyone who can take credit for that. McNeil fell into line like everyone else,” his friend and fellow oddsmaker Ed Curd told author Dan E. Moldea in Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football (William Morrow, 1989). McNeil’s intellectual capacity, on the other hand, apparently was beyond dispute. “In my estimation,” Curd added, “he was the best handicapper who ever lived.”

The consensus about McNeil’s handicapping skill extends to the idea that, whoever invented the point spread, he shaped the concept into a popular alternative to traditional odds. According to Betting the Line: Sports Wagering in American Life (Ohio State University Press, 2001), “it was McNeil who refined it and first offered point spread betting out of his own sports book.”

McNeil’s success as a gambler had prompted one of Chicago’s biggest sports books to limit how much he could play, so he went into business for himself in the 1940s. Offering point spread bets, first on college football and then expanding to college basketball, McNeil drew so much action that the joint that had restricted his wagering shut down.

The point spread’s popularity opened a new angle for game fixing too. A team didn’t have to lose outright—just failing to cover the spread could alter the gambling outcome—an enticement that meant players could accept money for “point shaving” without having to suffer the indignity of defeat. The scandals that shook college basketball in the early 1950s were a byproduct of the gambling system so often attributed to McNeil.

Not that he had any connection to that underworld within an underworld. Described as “scholarly” and “temperamentally and politically” conservative—“I’m the last of the ‘economic royalists’ that Roosevelt used to talk against,” he told Furlong—McNeil was a legitimate businessman in his illicit line of work. He even harbored a hint of shame about his profession, which he kept secret from his longtime friend Amos Alonzo Stagg. As an undergraduate McNeil got to know the legendary Chicago football coach and they stayed in touch for decades, but he feared Stagg would shun him over his wagering.

In darker corners, McNeil’s gambling success was well known, so much so that he encountered unsavory interference. He closed his bookmaking operation when, as he told a friend, the mob “wanted to go partners with my brain.”

Along with guts and money, brains made up the three things that McNeil believed every gambler needed. And his brains and guts made him a lot of money. Calculating his career results in 1957, he figured he had been a winner in 25 of 27 seasons betting on college football, making an average of $320,000 a year.

In an open market McNeil’s innovations might have been worth much more. A multibillion-dollar sports industry derives a healthy percentage of its interest from point-spread wagering. Furlong suggested the NFL owed McNeil as much as anyone for the league’s lucrative popularity, to say nothing of the casino sports books where cash passes over the table by the fistful. As author Brendan Koerner put it, “Dude deserves a gold statue in front of Caesar’s Palace.”