Like most people who gamble, I am very bad at it. But I continue to do it, owing to a delusion that I am awesome at everything and therefore can't possibly lose. Gambling for men isn't about winning money but about boosting our self-esteem by proving that we're always right. Women's self-esteem comes from healthier places, like starving themselves.
So there's no way I'm not going to bet on the Super Bowl, the biggest betting event of the year, despite the fact that I hate football and know nothing about it. Luckily, the thoughtful hosts who run gambling establishments don't want anyone to feel left out, so they invented the "proposition bet," which creates wagers based on hundreds of superfluous details, such as who will win the opening coin toss, whether the first missed field goal goes left or right or if the jersey number of the last person to score is odd or even. Somewhere, someone is placing a bet on whether Jessica Simpson will show up at the game without realizing her boyfriend isn't in it.
But all prop bets are based on either luck or sports knowledge. I needed a Super Bowl bet based on my nonfootball expertise, something that would make me feel smart on a day I feel dumb. So I called oddsmaker Art Manteris to see if we could come up with a bet that he would post on all 19 sports books he runs for Station Casinos. Manteris, author of Super Bookie, was responsible for making proposition bets a huge business when, in 1985, he offered 20-to-1 odds at Caesars Palace that an incredibly fat defensive lineman named William (the Refrigerator) Perry would score a Super Bowl touchdown. Unfortunately for Manteris, there was a rare outpouring of public affection for the obese, and when the Fridge scored, the casino lost six figures. "But it got media attention," says Manteris. "From that moment on, Super Bowl props became a big deal." Unfortunately for Manteris, guys who run casinos are less interested in media attention than in losing six figures on an incredibly stupid bet.
Waiting for Manteris at the Italian restaurant at Vegas' Red Rock resort, I was bummed I couldn't find someone to bet me what he would look like. Because I would have made a lot of money. He had a pinstriped suit, a faint beard, a faint paunch and a not-so-faint gold chain with an Eastern Orthodox cross, a Greek evil eye and a Hindu om. I was not sure I trusted an oddsmaker who wasn't willing to set a line on who would triumph at the apocalypse.
Though Manteris now shuns silly prop bets, it didn't take long to get a gambler like him excited about mine. Unfortunately, most of my ideas were illegal, since Vegas has been ruined by lots of laws and regulations over the past few years, none of which seem to have to do with restaurant prices. The law states that you can wager only on statistically verifiable sports events, thus eliminating my bet on whether the first cheerleader shown on television would be prettier than Tom Brady. My second plan, however, seemed promising. While I don't know anything about football, I do, as a Jew with pushy parents, know an awful lot about the importance of a good college education. So I asked Manteris to post this proposition bet: Will the first person to score a touchdown have attended one of the Top 100 schools in the 2008 U.S. News & World Report rankings? Manteris thought for a moment. "I don't want to say your bet is stupid," he said. "But it is unique."
Which is precisely the point of prop bets. Like any advanced form of capitalism, they twist something simple (like who will do better in the game) into a way to express yourself. My bet allowed me to self-express what a snotty jerk I am.
When I saw my bet go up on the giant screens at the Red Rock casino, I understood the power of creating a new way for people to gamble. Someone might become interested in my bet and lose a car payment or, better yet, their child's college education. I got to control how people thought about their money. I now understood how Jim Cramer lost his mind.
But looking at the board, it seemed a little weird that Manteris' team of statisticians set the odds at exactly even. I was about to bet $100 that the first touchdown scorer had gone to a good school when my old Stanford roommate, Ben Wu, decided to run the numbers. According to Wu and perhaps this Excel document he sent me that I can't follow, there's only a 46.1% chance that the first touchdown will be scored by someone who went to a Top 100 school. Which did not stop me from placing my bet. Because real gambling isn't about the odds; it's about the personal narrative you want to project—which, for me, is my need to root for the overeducated élite in everything. Except, of course, when Michael Kinsley's columns beat mine on the Time.com "most e-mailed" list. Don't make me write about the Oscars too, Mike.