In conjunction with an ESPN magazine cover story on John Daly, there is a new Bill Simmons column, in which he makes the novel argument that gambling by athletes is not that big a deal. He addresses the hypocrisy of pro sports' supposed intolerance for gambling, when football shows constantly make reference to point spreads, and ESPN devotes twenty hours a week to televised poker.
The wildly popular NCAA Basketball Tournament is an event completely centered around office pools. Witness the lack of excitement for this year's Final Four, in part because George Mason was a "bracket-buster", and ruined many a gambler's pool. (For the record, my Final Four was LSU, Florida, UCLA, and UConn.) Absent a wagering interest, people couldn't work up much excitement for UCLA-Florida.
The two main points that Simmons raises are:
1. Gambling is not always a debilitating, life-destroying addition. "Watch any TV show in which a character starts betting, and almost always, he loses control before the big 'intervention' episode."
2. One's competitive instincts toward sports would likely translate to competitiveness at gambling, and in fact, one's poise at the gambling/blackjack table could be an indicator of one's poise in a sporting event. Says Simmons: "If I owned a team, I'd insist on playing poker with any coach or manager I was thinking of hiring."
As evidence for his argument, Simmons cites two stories about Michael Jordan. One involved observing his play at a high-stakes blackjack table in Connecticut, which showed off the poise of Jordan (and also that of a young Rip Hamilton). The second story was about Jordan bribing a baggage handler in order to win a small bet with teammates over which bags would emerge first from the baggage carousel, which showed Jordan's drive to win at anything, no matter how trivial. Jordan is an "alpha dog",
The column is interesting, but it doesn't fit with the accompanying excerpt from John Daly's book. Daly is indeed a compulsive gambler, but he plays slot machines compulsively. Daly writes:
"Playing slot machines for me is like being compeltely alone, on my own, like on a cross country drive. I'll check my watch and maybe 10, 15 hours have gone by. It's scary how far away I get."
Playing slots doesn't reveal anything about Daly's competitiveness or poise, because with slot machines, he has no control over the outcome. Gambling involves a lot of luck, but at least playing poker or blackjack requires some modicum of strategy and skills. When you play slots, you just pull the lever over and over. It's a machine, specifically a machine specifically calibrated, and regulated by the state government, to return only 75-90% of the money wagered. Although Daly talks as though he has a rivalry with a slot machine at the Wynn Las Vegas casino ("That $5,000 machine owed me," he writes), it's hard to argue that that's really a contest.
What would Simmons say if he learned that a potential new coach had lost over a million dollars in five hours, playing slot machines the whole time? Probably, "Thank you for your time, but we're going to go in a different direction." Or, "Perhaps you'd be more comfortable working for Chris Cohan?"
I'm sure that this is complete coincidence, and it couldn't possibly affect ESPN's editorial opinion about the legitimacy of gambling, but the Simmons column is followed by a two-page ad for PartyPoker.net.