Previously a student-athlete at Pomona College, now I write about all sorts of things.

Swimming with the Sharks: Sports Betting and Ocean Exploration

Swimming with the Sharks: Sports Betting and Ocean Exploration

A sports gambler and an old ocean exploration tale offer two compelling accounts of dealing with what is unknown, and what might be unknowable.



Each year ESPN publishes a special edition of their flagship magazine, coined rather lengthily: “ESPN the Magazine, “The Analytics Edition.” Signaling ESPN’s growing commitment to continued innovation in sports coverage, “The Analytics Edition” approaches sports from a strictly quantitative perspective. Games, players, personal interest stories are all shoved through the analytics machine and drowned in a wealth of data. Maybe you’re a casual basketball fan; you watch a game and think to yourself “Wow that number 4 is a great player.” Here comes “The Analytics Edition” as it insidiously whispers in your ear, “but wouldn’t you like to know exactly how good that number 4 is? Wouldn’t you like to know his PER? His WARP? The team’s Pythagorean Wins and its Simple Rating Systems?” A strange and foreign lexicon you might think to yourself, not worth the effort of the baptism-through-datum. Besides you’re only a casual fan, leave all that insider stuff to the people who care. And I think about that a lot: who does care?     

In its March 2013 issue “The Analytics Edition” published a piece that broke with its core thematic. The story told of Bob Voulgaris, neither a professional athlete nor a professional statistician, but a Canadian transplant who, as ESPN tells it, found his “edge” in the 1990 world of Las Vegas sports gambling. Voulgaris made millions of dollars betting on professional basketball games. He was a “subjective” gambler, that is, he relied only on intuition and thousands of hours worth of basketball knowledge when placing money on the books. His strategy involved honing in on three NBA coaches: Eddie Jordan, Jerry Sloan and Byron Scott, and learning their in-game tactics to the point where, in his words, “I knew exactly what they were going to do. I mean, it was a joke, it was so easy.” “The Analytics Edition” hardly lets the weight of this statement sink in, that an almost cosmic connection of consciousness of this type resulted in the aggregation of a fortune, before it notes that in 2004, Voulgaris began to lose big. The bookies caught on to his inhalation of these coach’s habits and changed their betting lines accordingly. Voulgaris became just another sucker pissing his money away on the Vegas sports books.     

But of course this a sports story and all good sports stories have a redemption arc. So how does the since-fallen “World’s top NBA gambler” bounce back? He recruits a “literal math prodigy” to build a predictive model. An algorithm that, when fed the correct data, spits back up the most statistically likely outcome for each and every NBA game. No longer a slave to the whims of chance, Voulgaris envisioned a future wherein he and his “literal math prodigy” could design a computer program that could take everything into account: a player’s age, their injury potential when guarding a certain player, their dietary restrictions, and more. Their computer crystal ball would bravely shove them forward in time where huge sums of money would be just waiting around in some version of gambler’s paradise.     

At the time of the piece’s publishing Voulgaris’ model had undergone several modifications as he struggled to keep his predictive edge over an increasingly statistically savvy population of bookies seeking to keep the edge as small as possible. The piece ends on a meditation of the man behind the gambling. In spite of the 80 hours of basketball he watches per week, and the strange and alienating lifestyle his betting requires of him, “The Analytics Edition” wants its reader to know that Voulgaris has ambition. He wants to own an NBA team, of course. But through it all he maintains that his vision of his own future is “blurry,” with “The Analytics Edition” smartly remarking that his predictive model doesn’t predict that kind of thing after all.   

 But does it? This is a feature with an eye strongly affixed to the future: the future of sports coverage, the future NBA games that will be played before the team’s even show up to the arena, the future money to be earned by always knowing more. It’s a completely bizarre intersection of data science and sports in the realm of fortune-telling and smoky Las Vegas casinos, the mecca for those that wish to try their luck. But “The Analytics Edition” doesn’t believe in luck, it believes in statistics and quantifiable measurements that spell out habits, quirks, and with reasonable certainty, future performances. Chance loses its mysticism and comes to resemble the murky depths of the ocean or the vastness of space: sure it seems pretty big and imposing but with enough data, science, and time we can figure it all out. Speculations about the future will cease eventually to be speculations and become calculations. I fret about the possibility that once we have enough data we can correctly say that in 2022 the Charlotte Hornets will defeat the Portland Trailbazers in Game 7 of the NBA Championship by a score of 122-113, because the Hornet’s best player only ate spinach that day and was being guarded by a guy who, despite being lactose intolerant, accidentally had milk in his oatmeal instead of hot water but didn’t want to miss this chance of a lifetime because statistically speaking, his upbringing and familial structure indicates he will suffer from hubris and play on despite his horrific stomach issues. In the same vein we can say that eventually we will know that mermaids definitively do not exist anywhere in the ocean, and that there are 226 sperm whale carcasses lining a major fault line in the Atlantic Ocean.   

 I am thinking of something else as well. In 1956 French ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau released the film Le Monde Du Silence, the first of its kind to film underwater and in color. For his efforts Cousteau was widely lauded; he won both the Academy Award for Best Documentary and the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. In short, the movie was remarkable for its technical innovations as it sought to bring underwater exploration to mass audiences. Cousteau’s lofty ambitions are presented in the first shot: he and his crew in full scuba gear swimming down into the ocean with flares lit like underwater torches. It reads as a Promethean homage, exposing Cousteau’s inner Romantic perhaps a bit more than he intended. Yet for all its grand ideas the rest of the film appears almost as a low-stakes endeavor, much less concerned with the acquisition of knowledge than with a genuine sense of surprise.     

The film follows Cousteau and his crew as they lounge about aboard their converted naval ship the U.S.S. Calypso, sailing the sunny Mediterranean Sea. They pause occasionally to dive into the water in their scuba gear with their cameras ready; they affectionately name fish, wander through shipwrecks, get scared of sharks, and grab lobster from reef walls for a late lunch. Sometimes disaster strikes. One of the divers ascends too quickly to the surface so Captain Cousteau sticks him in the de-pressurization chamber for three hours as the rest of the crew enjoy their afternoon glasses of wine. A science documentary this is not, there is no particular feeling that any of these “discoveries” are to be made sense of or explained away. Spectacular aquatic scenery is interspersed with tanned Frenchmen in speedos (which serves as their de facto uniform) and everyone involved is mutually implicated by the sense of awe that pervades the film and its treatment of all those things they’d never seen before.     

Le Monde du Silence continues in this mesmerizingly aesthetic vision of underwater adventure for about twenty minutes at which point the film intercedes with a scene of shocking violence and scientific validity. Upon discovering a coral reef, Calypso’s resident biologist decides that the crew must catalogue and classify the fish they have found. Yet a logistical problem remains: the fish are living organisms that neither sit still nor cater that well to being observed. The crew’s solution is elegantly brutal: use dynamite to blow up the reef and sort the dead fish out on the beach. The film then presents us with an enormous pile of fish carcasses strewn out along the sand. But the cruelest irony of all? Fish, when killed, quickly lose both their color and shape as they become essentially indistinguishable from each other; something the biologist realizes only after they’ve turned the reef into a watery graveyard. This is of little concern to the crew of the Calypso as this moment of taxonomic violence passes and the film re-settles into its previous adventurous loll. But the shock of the striking tonal shift remains, even as the dynamite scene is sandwiched between more playful digressions underneath the ocean’s surface.     

I find it increasingly hard to watch this film without fixating on the squat excitement of the biologist as he pauses before igniting the dynamite. It colors the film differently and I ask myself over and over, is exploration to be separated from violence? For some reason my stream of thought at this point always leads me to Don Quixote setting off for adventure in his best knightly impression, as he loosens the reins on Rocinante and lets the horse decide what adventures shall be had, what paths shall be taken (Rocinante goes back to his stall, he presumably doesn’t share Quixote’s passion for adventure). But mostly I think of how Le Monde du Silence tries to negotiate between the Quixote and the biologist, an adventure through a pure subjection to chance or a discovery made with a violent imposition. For on one hand Cousteau and his crew are genuinely unsettled by what they find underwater, it escapes their comprehension and all they can do is point their cameras. Yet on the other hand they are obligated by the filiation between discovery and science. No longer content just to see and gape, they must impose, kill, and classify, but most of all, to make sense and to understand.   

 I find in Cousteau’s ocean a compelling crisis of the unknown. I find it in Bob Voulgaris’ predictive modelling machine too. Of course Voulgaris is gifted an entirely different history; by 1990 we could compellingly ask if chance or fortune were just the leftovers of bad empiricism. Whereas Cousteau began to mediate between his awe before the seemingly infinite randomness of the ocean (his own powerlessness) and the scientific (his assertion of dominance), Voulgaris and the rest of the analytically-minded gamblers struggle to suppress awe and randomness to its smallest remainder. In this sense I find the trend that Voulgaris typifies rather alarming with its perspective of white-knuckled control. For does that leave the possibility of adventure? Or, less grandiose, the possibility of non-calculable action? Sometimes I try to do something completely random like grab a leaf off a bush, but then I think that someone could calculate based on my concern to do something random that I would do something pointless like that and I get claustrophobic so I stop.     

But what is Voulgaris afraid of? What drives the relentless modelling and analysis? His fears are not so openly admitted as mine, nor is he in bodily danger from an unforgiving and indifferent Mother Nature. Apart from potential brushes with angry casino enforcement — those back alleys are there for a reason, after all — Voulgaris seems remarkably comfortable. He has property in Monte Cristo and the Hollywood Hills, millions of dollars in the bank, and the phone numbers of any number of entertainment industry bigwigs and socialites. Yet, and this is important, Voulgaris hardly ever leaves his house. “The Analytics Edition” rests on this point: more often than not Voulgaris can be found in his living room monitoring lines, scores, money lost and money won as they flit past the screens of his multiple laptops and TVs. Without particularly intending it, “The Analytics Edition” paints a picture of a lightly concealed paranoia; an obsession with all those possibilities that can go awry. This is a different sort of fear than Cousteau’s: something I would diagnose as a psychological rupture rather than material danger. The gambler must find in the cold indifference of chance the means of his living. Contrary to the person who can reciprocate with his work, the gambler’s alienation is absolute: he is completely barred from the intimacy that someone like Cousteau can find when, at the bare minimum, the fish acknowledges his presence. Ultimately the capital fear of Voulgaris’ chosen profession is his condemnation to passive exile: when its time to play he sits on his couch and can only watch like a kid in timeout as a bunch of sculpted professional athletes — who couldn’t care less about him — decide his fate.     I’m curiously fascinated by the idea of chance. More curious still, is to be obsessed with something that is structurally indifferent to me. Things happen to me and I make sense retroactively. I grab the leaf and afterwards rationalize it by saying I was being purposefully irrational. I cannot avoid paradoxes like these, but this particular type of incomprehensibility is where I seek explanations. And in the gambler’s subtle desperation and the sea captain’s wildly uneven film I find those people and things where explanations seem hardest to come by. For in one sense they are both eminently comfortable: Voulgaris lives in the safety of numbers, Cousteau in the safety of science (and both of them are rich). Yet the comfort only extends so far; and those losing streaks or fish massacres point to a darker underbelly of repressed uncertainty. A kind of desperation to get intimate with the indifference of chance and the unknown with numbers and scientific explanation.     

Perhaps this explains the cracks in the narratives they present (the intuitive bettor turning to math or the environmentalist explorer blowing up a reef). They deal so directly with something that so completely resists structure or storytelling that the stories they tell are faintly incomprehensible. There is, in the end, the sobering fact that no amount of models or reef bombings will change the unpredictability of the absolute indifference of a hungry fish or dice thrown. I like here the contrast of Voulgaris’ living room with Cousteau’s onboard antics. Reduced ultimately to spectators in their own stories, they treat their uselessness or alienation in wildly opposing manners: Cousteau relaxes and tans while Voulgaris obsesses. It is a contrast I like because, despite appearances, these are two equally useless strategies. Cousteau still can’t get the fish to sit still even if he somehow equalizes the ocean’s carelessness with his own, and Voulgaris still can’t get all the scores right no matter how long he stares at the TV. There is a lingering lack of resolution to both Le Monde du Silence and ESPN’s feature that indicates perhaps some things remain unknown despite how many times you count them or blow them up.     

These are useless stories after all: just some gambling addict and an ocean movie that has aged poorly quietly failing to tell a coherent story about the random and bizarre things that happen to them at work. And these jumbled accounts of uselessly courting fortune make me feel just the slightest bit less claustrophobic. I’ve stopped terrorizing my neighborhood flora and fauna at such a frequent pace: it’s a bad habit and I’m mostly content with the fact that the Charlotte Hornets’ ownership system is a mess and that spinach leaves a weird aftertaste in your mouth if you eat it plain… no one would only eat spinach… would they?

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