Easy Chair — From the June 2016 issue

The Improbability Party

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To gain some insight into the question, I decided to talk with the real thing. Jason Simbal works as vice president of race and sports — a job description that looks great on a business card — for a firm called CG Technology. His employer describes itself as an “innovative gaming technology and risk management solutions provider,” which is a long way of saying that they are bookies. (The company was formerly called Cantor Gaming and was funded by Wall Street mainstay Cantor Fitzgerald, a connection that ought to surprise nobody.) Simbal was an accountant in New York before he heard the call of the wild. He understands the science of prediction as well as its cultural and psychological applications, and I trust his opinions because they can be priced. Unlike the hacks and flacks on cable television, whose forecasts are often made to grab attention, manipulate perceptions, manage expectations, and generally keep the news vibrato humming, Simbal is not paid to act certain and look informed. Fairly regularly, he must actually be right.

I met Simbal in March at the Cosmopolitan, a deluxe casino in Las Vegas whose shiny new sportsbook, or betting lounge, his firm operates. With its colossal curving video screens and crackling atmosphere of nonstop drama — just then we were engulfed in a frenzy of golf and tennis involving titanic athletes and cometlike balls — the lounge resembled the futuristic studios where presidential debates are judged and election results dissected.

Simbal explained his trade to me. Odds-making is odds-making, he said. If it were legal to wager on elections, he’d set point spreads for them as he does for NFL games. (Outside the reach of U.S. law, political-prediction markets do a brisk business, and Silver and his sort make frequent reference to them when justifying their own prognostications.) The key to great odds-making is great information; the more games from the past that Simbal can analyze, the better his results. Consistency of method is crucial, too. That’s why bad predictions arrived at through sound reasoning don’t bother Simbal, while a good call based on flawed reasoning would.

That’s the science. Here’s the art: the bookie’s goal is not actually predicting the future; it’s setting a line that will attract equal betting on each side. This drops risk to zero, since wins will cover losses, and it guarantees a nice profit, earned by way of commissions on every bet. In a rational world, the most accurate prediction would actually serve this function. But certain sports or individual athletes are more beloved than others, which tilts the action irrationally. To promote opposing bets — to balance things — Simbal sometimes fiddles with the spread. It does him no good to be smarter than his clients.

This detail interests me. It suggests that predictions have a social dimension. Sometimes the stories they tell about the future are shaped to change people’s behavior in the present. Predictions move energy around. They stir excitement here, they suppress it over there. Trump brought momentum to his long-shot candidacy by promising outlandish payouts to voters willing to help him beat the odds. Take a risk on me, reap a huge reward. Clinton holds out a different proposition: to dampen enthusiasm for Sanders and shift a portion of it to herself, she portrays herself as a high-odds candidate offering sure, if modest, rewards.

Simbal thinks of himself as being in the entertainment business. In the end, he tells me, he sells suspense. Most of his customers don’t bet that much, only enough to make things interesting. People watch games more closely when they have skin in them, and fixating on the play and the outcome lets them shed their worries and cares. This is obvious when I look around the sportsbook; people are rooted in their seats, their eyes on the screens, their hands clutching their drinks. Their bodies are motionless; only their thoughts are racing.

“Our business,” Simbal says as I watch a man who’s watching another man swat a giant tennis ball, “is driven by escapism.” Then he draws an analogy, doing my job for me. “It’s like when people go home and turn on CNN to escape their work, their lives.”

So were gambling parlors the first newsrooms? Yes, I’m guessing. And were bookies, with all their hot info, the first reporters? Yes again. Then why did some oddsmakers turn into journalists, quitting the action in favor of describing it? Probably because they lost their touch.

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