Friday, March 27, 2015

The day I was a Boston Fan

  I got my first programming job in Florida in 1985. I was the full-time computer operator (a job that doesn’t exist anymore) and a part-time programmer with two other programmers. When one of the programmers quit I became a full-time programmer and remained the full-time computer operator and even got a 30 cent an hour raise to $7.55 an hour as part of my promotion. At the time the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour and I was thrilled because at that point it was more important to learn programming than make money and since I was working over 60 hours a week I already had plenty of money and no time to spend it. My attitude soon changed when I was promoted to a full-time programmer with an extra 25 cents an hour but no more overtime and my replacement as full-time computer operator was hired for $8.50 an hour which I only found out when I was working on some payroll reports.

  I soon made my way back to New Jersey and got a job as a full time programmer in March of 1987 at Amerex of California for a salary that worked out very close to the $8.50 an hour the Floridian computer operator was making if you don’t count the fact that I worked over 50 hours a week because I loved programming so much. I worked in a three person shop with Greg the programmer/manager and Bruce the vice president of data processing. Bruce was 20 years older than me and had written the systems I worked on. Bruce and I got along pretty well and we would talk about sports a lot. While I was interested in which team would win their division or win a game or a series Bruce was much more interested in who would win a single game along with point spreads and odds which was natural when you think about it because Bruce loved to gamble.

  Bruce would gamble on whatever sport was in season and during the summer of 1987 he would show me his bets on the baseball games and explain to me his thought processes he would use in considering the combination of the starting pitchers and odds he would get. In the fall he switched to football and hockey with horse racing a constant staple of his betting adventures. Bruce was really smart and had an excellent memory. He was a great card player and had a big money Friday night poker game that he said funded his weekly bets. I think he won his bets most weeks but there were some occasions that he would ask me what I thought about the Monday Night Football game and mention he needed to win his bet to ‘catch up’.

  I had my first personal computer at Amerex. It has a 10 megabyte hard disk drive and two floppy disk drives that provided another 720 kilobytes of portable storage. All together this amount of storage wouldn’t be enough to save a picture from today’s digital cameras but back then it was a lot of storage and allowed unheard of freedom and flexibility. I dabbled in a program called Dbase which was a database program that allowed users to make data tables and write programs to manipulate them. In the fall of 1987 I entered the first two months of NBA scores and betting lines into a Dbase table. There was no internet and I got my data from newspapers or radio. It wasn’t a trivial task because west coast scores weren’t reported in the morning papers and hardly mentioned on the sports reports but after two months I had my data and started work on a program to pick basketball games.

  My program measured team’s margin of victory in their home and road games and predicted a winner with a margin of victory. I then compared my results to the actual results and the betting lines. I experimented with weightings to favor more recent results and eventually came up with a system that I felt comfortable worked. When my assessment was 5 points different that the betting line I was right on 58% percent of my predictions, when my assessment was 3 to 5 points different I was right 53% percent of the time and when my assessment was under a three point difference I was only right 49% of the time.

  This year’s Super Bowl betting saw the Patriots as a two to three point favorite two weeks before the game but as the betting public bet their money on Seattle the bookmakers had the Patriots giving less points to attract betting on the Patriots. This is because the bookmakers don’t want to gamble on a game – they want a guaranteed profit and they get that by having an equal amount of money on both sides of a bet. The profit is guaranteed because straight bets like the point spread or the over/under generally carry a 10 percent penalty for losing bets. This is called the ‘vigorish’ and is the bookmaker’s commission for matching the bets and ensures a profit as long as bets are equally made on both sides of a proposition.

  This means two very important things to gamblers and prognosticators. First, any betting system needs 11 winning bets for every 10 losing bets to make up for the vigorish. This works out to a 52.4 winning percentage just to break even. Second, the goal isn’t to beat the bookmakers but to find and exploit the betting biases in the gambling population that distort the point spreads or over/under numbers. My system being 53% correct with a 3 to 5 point variance was just barely enough to break even and could leave me a loser when betting a small number of games. The 58% success rate when my system strongly disagreed with the point spread was something worth pursuing with the only red flag being that my system only spit out this type of disagreement a few times a week.

  In the first two weeks of 1988 my system came up with seven games that were bet-able and was right five of the seven times. Bruce knew I was working on the system in my spare time and one Friday morning he asked if there was a game I recommended to bet on that day. The lowly Sacramento Kings were in Boston to take on the mighty Celtics of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parrish. The Celtics had just defeated the Detroit Pistons by almost 40 points at home while the Kings had won only one road game all year. The Celtics were 24 point favorites and my system predicted a 32 point victory. I asked Bruce if he would put $50 on the Celtics for me. Bruce said he would if he could get ahold of his bookie. At quitting time on Friday I asked Bruce if he had gotten ahold of his bookie and he said he did but instead of just putting $50 on the Celtics he put a couple thousand dollars on them since he needed to catch up on a bad week.

  I drove home in a cold sweat never expecting my boss’s boss to bet what for me would have been a couple month’s pay based on my little Dbase program. ESPN was a regional cable network at that time and I didn’t have cable TV anyway so to keep track of the scores I switched between New York’s only sports station WFAN with their reports at the top of the hour and 20 minutes after and 20 minute before the hour, WCBS new radio 880 with sports reports at 15 and 45 past the hour, and 1010 news radio WINS with sports reports 10 past each half hour.

  The first report came with the Celtics grabbing a 20 point lead in the first quarter but then the Kings cut it to a dozen 20 minutes later. By the next report the game was at halftime with the Celtics back to a 20 point lead which grew to 40 in the third quarter. I was feeling pretty good and considering the prospects of a promotion when the next report had the Kings cutting the lead to 18 in the fourth quarter. I started scanning the want ads in the newspaper for programming jobs when the next report had the Celtics with a 26 point lead with a few minutes left. I had my heart in my stomach waiting for the final score but the sports report gave the hockey scores and only noted the winners of the basketball games. I waited another 20 minutes and finally the score came and the Celtics won by well over 24 points. I let out a huge sigh of relief and went to bed a happy person.

  When I got to work on Monday Bruce had my $50 and I was expecting some congratulations for helping him break even for the week and maybe even a tip but instead Bruce said “I told my poker game how I had this genius working for me and that he figured out a basketball system. Then I told them about the bet I made on the Celtics giving 24 points and they made fun of me all night.” I asked why and Bruce said, “They told me that only an idiot or a Boston fan ever gives that many.” I pointed out that the bet won and Bruce said “Yeah, but these guys killed me all night at the poker game. They called all my bluffs because they thought since I was stupid enough to give 24 points with the Celtics that I was probably stupid enough to be bluffing!”

  Bruce never asked me for any sports advice after that and I stopped entering the data into the dBase program soon after but I never forgot the day I was the biggest Celtics fan there ever was.

  I've thought from time to time about resurrecting my basketball picking program but there's no need to at the moment thanks to my 4-1 mark last week which boosted my record to 12-2 over the last three weeks and padded my winnings to 310 mythical dollars - a big improvement from the $570 hole I found myself in three weeks ago. In the last three weeks I've done well picking good teams at home to cover the spread against bad teams and picking against teams playing on the second night of a back to back. There are no teams playing back to back and few pushovers on the road in tonights well-balanced schedule. On Wednesday afternoon I thought I had everything figured out, - Boston and Phoenix were hot, Portland was cold, and Brooklyn was playing poorly at home. Then on Wednesday night, Portland won a gritty road game at Utah, Phoenix was awful at home against Sacramento, and an injury plagued Miami Heat team won in Boston. Nonetheless I see some opportunities for profit on tonight's slate and as usual I'll be making my picks using the lines as listed on the Yahoo Sports page for entertainment purposes only.

Cleveland Cavaliers at Brooklyn Nets
I picked against the Nets at home last week and was punished with my lone setback in the last two weeks when they beat the Milwaukee Bucks in double overtime. The Nets have won five out of their last seven to put them on the periphery of the Eastern Conference playoff race but the Cavaliers are playing at a championship level and I'll pick them to take the road contest and will lay the 8.5 points to win $100.

Dallas Mavericks at San Antonio Spurs
On Tuesday the Mavericks fell behind early but outscored the Spurs by 20 in the middle two quarters to win easily in Dallas. I think the Spurs will have something to prove to their home crowd and will pick them to win by more than the 8.5 points on a $100 bet.

Portland Trailblazers at Phoenix Suns
The injury plagued Trailblazers just broke their five game losing streak while the Suns had their four game winning streak snapped in an awful home loss to the lowly Kings. I predict the Suns will rebound from their putrid performance and beat Portland to win me $100 and I even get a point.

Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies
When these two teams met in December, the Grizzlies won by seven at home but the Warriors were without big men Andrew Bogut and David Lee. The Warriors will have these two for tonight's game to battle Memphis bigs Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and are getting 3.5 points besides so I will take the Warriors and the points for a $100 wager.