Against the Odds

Steve Abramowitz

MARCH MADNESS HAS descended on my family. I’m not just referring to the hoopla surrounding the annual NCAA college basketball tournament that runs from late March through early April. I mean the reckoning for our 36-year-old son, and his decision to switch careers and pursue his dream of becoming a professional sports bettor.   

For the 10 years after college graduation, Ryan taught high school math and coached basketball. But in between planning lectures, going over homework and grading exams, he was cultivating a very different kind of pastime. After achieving some success while working what was in essence a job and a half, he felt ready to break the tie to his secure teaching job and venture full-time into an occupation that promised turbulence, more money and self-fulfillment.

Skeptical and concerned, but with faith in our son’s judgment, my wife Alberta and I agreed to support Ryan, chipping in some start-up money for two years. You may see us as pathetically manipulable. You can call us dangerous and shameful enablers. You might even think Alberta and I should be surrendering our psychology licenses. But we want our son to have a shot at a career that’s meaningful to him. If many of his friends and those in our professional circle are contemptuous, so be it.

What in a nutshell does sports betting entail? The demands are daunting: 60-hour weeks for sure, including much of the weekend. Ryan bets on baseball, along with college and pro football and basketball. The Monday-through-Friday stretch requires intricate probability research to gain an edge over the house.

Fridays during basketball season are particularly frenzied, as Saturdays are host to more than 100 college games. Sprinkled into the routine are online conversations searching for clues from fellow bettors, along with the occasional call to a local sportswriter for the latest news on the status of an injured star player.

Besides their prodigious work ethic, sports bettors must tolerate agonizingly close games and days of harrowing losses. The strategy Ryan uses to reduce those losses will be familiar to you. On each betting day, Ryan becomes the manager of a “fund” of small wagers across many games. Remember, the goal is a relatively stable income stream, not to risk everything on red.

The toll on the sports bettor’s health is physical as well as psychological. The stock market can be a wild beast, but at least we know when it’ll open for trading. Incredibly and probably deliberately, the betting lines can come out at any time during the day or night. If you want to try and anticipate opening prices, get ready for some interrupted sleep.

Social life is put on hold. The Friday and Saturday crunch crimps friendships and dating life. A confirmed introvert, Ryan’s network is small and he often feels isolated. Weekend events like weddings and bar mitzvahs become obstacles more than celebrations.

Can flowers bloom in a desert of drudgery, unpredictability and aloneness? Ryan loves his daily routine—the numbers, the multiple TV screens, the sports memorabilia on the wall, time in a coffee shop with his laptop. He relishes his freedom from the clutches of the eight-to-five job and the chance to live out his passion, something most people never get. The pattern of Ryan’s results has been the same over each of the two years. He’s sustained small losses in baseball and football, and made very large profits in both college and pro basketball, where he can capitalize on his coaching experience. Last year, he enjoyed fabulous success, not only overcoming the small losses but also allowing him to adopt a privileged lifestyle.

This year, Ryan has again beaten the odds, but only back to the level of his earlier humdrum teacher’s salary. What was only a worry has become a reality: His income would be highly volatile from year to year and so would his lifestyle. More so, that bountiful first year may just have been a random outlier unlikely to be repeated. Business deductions are sweet, but no health care, no employer retirement contributions and no summer off? Are the goodies really worth the brutal time commitment and compressed weekends?

Maybe it’s time for a part-time job, which many of his compatriots use to smooth out income and provide fringe benefits. A part-year position in the burgeoning sports betting community would be ideal, and might induce Ryan to shed the unproductive sports and concentrate on his specialty. The reckoning has arrived and, barring an unlikely romp through the tournament, the family will need to call a timeout and huddle.

The three of us, already a tight bunch, have become even closer. At a time when many parents are struggling to forge a conflict-free relationship with their adult children, Alberta and I are on the phone with Ryan almost daily. She catches up on the day-to-day drama of her son’s life and I get the scorecard.

Now, let’s cut to the chase. Is my son a gambling addict whose affliction is merely papered over by a hot streak? Maybe so. Could he find his way out should the profits prove fleeting or his health declines? Confronting these questions needs to be part of the game plan.

More than 50 years ago, I sought a career that would free me from the doldrums of everyday job constraints. I imagined I was destined to be a whirlwind options trader, running to payphones for real-time quotes. Fortunately, I failed early and often enough, and met a woman who could lead me back to the world of work reality.

But I am haunted by the “what if”? Could my support of Ryan’s unorthodox career choice reflect an attempt to compensate for my failure as a free-wheeling options trader? This is reason enough for another kind of huddle—one where the players are the different parts of myself.

Steve Abramowitz is a psychologist in Sacramento, California. Earlier in his career, Steve was a university professor, including serving as research director for the psychiatry department at the University of California, Davis. He also ran his own investment advisory firm. Check out Steve’s earlier articles.

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