It's a week before the Super Bowl, an event that will attract about $100 million in legal bets in Nevada and many times that amount in illegal wagers elsewhere. The odds are long that you will know all of these facts:
1. The University of Chicago boasts about its connection to 25 winners of the Nobel Prize in economics, but little is heard about a U. of C. graduate named Charles McNeil who helped transform the economics of gambling. McNeil was an early proponent of the point spread and indeed may have invented the concept, in which the margin of victory is the key number. As one bookie put it: "The point spread was the greatest invention since the zipper."
2. A bookmaker's commission on a bet is called juice, or vigorish, or simply vig. Vigorish is Yiddish slang, from the Russian vyigrysh, meaning winnings.
3. History's most famous sports gambling scandal occurred when the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Eight so-called Black Sox, including star outfielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, were banned from baseball for life. Eliot Asinof's book about the plot was called "Eight Men Out," but there was a ninth man out. St. Louis Browns second baseman Joe Gedeon, who didn't play in the series but heard about the fix from his Sox friends, was banned because he didn't tell authorities.
4. In soccer, an "own goal" occurs when a player accidentally knocks the ball into his own goal, giving the opposition a point. Colombia defender Andres Escobar did that in the 1994 World Cup against the United States, costing his team the game. When he returned to Medellin, he was shot to death. The motive has never been firmly established, but many observers believe disgruntled gamblers ordered his murder.
5. In the history of bookmaking, one particular incident is known as Black Sunday. Before Super Bowl XIII in 1979, Pittsburgh started out as a 2 1/2-point favorite over the Cowboys. When most bettors picked Pittsburgh, the bookmakers moved their line to 4 1/2 to attract balancing wagers on Dallas. But when Pittsburgh ended up winning by 4 points, the bookies were "middled" -- they had to pay off the early bets on Pittsburgh and the late bets on Dallas.
6. In 1993, "The Wiz Kid" sold NFL predictions to bettors for $25 per phone call. Only later did the service's proprietor,David James, reveal that his 4-year-old son made the picks.
7. "Proposition bets," involving aspects of the game other than the final score, are wildly popular for Super Bowl bettors. When hockey star Wayne Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones, got caught up in a gambling scandal in 2006, it was reported that she bet $5,000 on the Super Bowl coin flip. People also wager on the length of the game's first punt, the number of penalties and which player will score the first touchdown. Bears star Devin Hester's touchdown on the opening kickoff of last year's Super Bowl earned bettors a ridiculous 25-1 payoff.
8. Some Super Bowl "prop bets" don't even involve the game. Last year, wagers were taken on whether Billy Joel's national anthem would be longer or shorter than 1 minute and 44 seconds (it was shorter). One sports book gave 50-1 odds that Carmen Electra would make an unscheduled appearance with Prince at halftime (she didn't) and 2-1 odds that Prince would have a wardrobe malfunction (he didn't).
9. British bookmaking firm William Hill offers bets on sports but also features wacky non-sports bets, such as who will be the first celebrity to be arrested in a given year. Singer Amy Winehouse was the co-favorite for 2008, along with rocker Pete Doherty. Before the last Harry Potter novel came out, William Hill set odds on whether the saga would end with Harry's death (it didn't).
Sources: Las Vegas Sun, Tribune news services, "Winning Is the Only Thing" by Randy Roberts and James Olson, "The Man With the $100,000 Breasts and Other Gambling Stories" by Michael Konik, American Heritage Dictionary, Times of London