Parlez-vous "sucker"?

Talking to my gambler buddy Steve about legalized sports books making it out of Vegas. "It's just a matter of time," says Steve, with the cynicism of the not-quite defeated punter. "People want it too much."

I can see his point, especially if the online poker sites start to edge their way onto the right side of the law. Still -- "Nah," I say. "It's not going to happen. The NFL has enough image problems as it is, and they have enough control over their product they can stop it if they want to, and at this point the gambling ban might be one of last bastions." Plus, as long as gambling is illegal, when you get a Ken Stabler or a Pete Rose associating with known criminals, you've got a line. As soon as NFL wagering becomes a franchise, he's talking to a gaming executive, or someone at Disney. Quasi-legal and underground is where the NFL wants it to be. (Though I have to admit, if there was a reality show about gamblers approaching NFL players past their prime I would watch it.)
"Did you know about Delaware?" says Steve. "Google 'Delaware State parlay.'"
Here's what came up. I couldn't believe it.
Now, I don't gamble on football, mostly because I'm a pretty casual fan, but even if I watched more of it, I wouldn't bet a penny on it. Why? The points spread.
Not the number itself. I kind of like that. To an ill-informed fan like me -- a guy who knows the Browns got rid of Eric Mangini but can't remember if it was before this season or last season -- a points spread actually says something crude and approximate about a matchup in a sort of USA Today way -- for an NFC East fan who hasn't seen SportsCenter in a month, "Kansas City +8" sums up a lot.
I certainly understand the point spread's appeal for the gambler -- it adds to the excitement, which is after all what wagering is about, for degenerates and $10 office-parlayers alike. But as a wager, it's an abomination. To begin with, the teams are not playing to beat the spread, they are playing to win. The spread is essentially a number designed to make favorites seem less appealing -- a way to convert a long-shot proposition into an even-money exchange. Which is stupid. To take a somewhat painful recent example, the Giants were clobbered last Monday night, losing 49-24 in a game where they were 7.5-point underdogs. Typically football betters save their resentment of the spread for when their team wins but does not cover. Understandable as their indignation may be, that's actually not the scammiest thing about the points spread. The truth is that objectively, the Giants had at best a 3-5 shot to win, and that's the only bet in the world -- pony up $3 to win $5 -- worth making.
The bookie -- that's another story. By setting the spread at 7 1/2 points he probably convinced some Giant advocates that they had a chance while discouraging weak-fleshed Saintly acolytes. Betting the Saints wouldn't beat the Jints by little more than a touchdown = hoping the Giants would have had the strength to stifle the Saints' offense and the will to refuse to be completely humiliated. Things exactly didn't turn out that way.
On the other side, a thin spread is just as egregious in its way -- if a game is going to be close and everyone knows it, the spread just penalizes the marginal favorite. If you have a feeling the Bucs are going to win against the Panthers in a tight one, why in heaven's name would you accept an even-money bet that will penalize you if they only win by two points? Someone please explain to me how anyone stands to profit except the house? (I can actually see why the NFL would have less of a problem with points spreads than direct odds -- eliminating the big payoffs would seem to lower the temptation to fix games. )
This is all gut feeling, you understand, since my mathematical skills are rudimentary at best. But I would like to see a study of a few seasons' worth of NFL games that shows how much the points spread hurts the favorites, and in particular what the correlation is between the size of the spread and the ability of the favorite to cover.
Give me parimutuel betting any time! If I head to the track, I might not be completely confident that the 8-horse is out there to win, and hasn't been force-fed some steroids-and-PCP cocktail before being trotted out to perform his part by dutifully throwing up clods of dirt on a 7-furlong trot before going back to his stable for a nice oat sandwich -- but at least I know that the only thing that determines how much I make from my wager is my aptitude compared to everyone else at the track. The middleman gets his percentage, and the amount I stand to win or lose is solely based on how well I predicted the outcome versus how much the other morons were willing to bet against my idea. The spread on the other hand, is a number people have concocted to maximize their profit at the expense of winners and losers.
But wait, there's more! My first reaction when we looked at this parlay sheet was, oh wait a second, I'll bet the payoffs are ridiculous when compared to real sports books or casual bets. Then I looked up the numbers and lo and behold, they pretty much match the standard parlay sheets. In fact, since they're half-points, they eliminate pushes.
So, yeah, here's the news: the Delaware Sports Lottery 1/2 Point Parlay Card is a state-of-the-art wager on a par with what you'll get at a legal sports book in Las Vegas or Bodog. Which should translate: it's a sucker bet -- for the people who make it. For Delaware though, it's surely another triumphant chapter in the scheme to punish the most vulnerable Delawareans who can least afford to squander money on gambling, by enticing them with long-shot losing propositions. After all if your citizens are foolish and poor enough, they deserve the very worst you can give them.