LAS VEGAS — As Charles K. McNeil taught a schoolboy JFK how to carry the one at the prestigious Riverdale Country School, along the Hudson in the Bronx in the late 1920s, the math whiz was betting 50 cents on college football games.
He had earned a master’s in history at the University of Chicago, whose administration called McNeil “a certified genius.”
A unit, or an average wager, would balloon to $11,000 as he refined and mastered a system. Eventually, a risk of 10 units, or $110,000, wouldn’t be uncommon for the tall, frail figure who would so impact sports betting.
McNeil is widely considered to be the father of the point spread. If he didn’t solely invent the foundation of modern sports wagering, many believe he polished and perfected its implementation.
Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder acknowledged McNeil as one of his few peers and would visit Chicago “just to watch him work.”
The Greek first heard “point spread” around the start of WWII, coinciding with McNeil’s timeline. Second-generation Las Vegas oddsman Kenny White says his father, Pete, also pins his first “spread” reference to the early 1940s.
Kenny recalls a line about Notre Dame “being favored by 20-something points” in a Three Stooges film from that era.
In 1986, Sports Illustrated called McNeil “the wizard who gave the world the point spread . . . one of the most influential figures in the history of American sport.”
He deserves a gold statue as a monument to his legacy, maybe in front of Caesars Palace, writer Brendan Koerner says.
Fellow oddsmaker Ed Curd informed author Dan E. Moldea for his 1989 book, “Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football,” about McNeil’s intellectual capacity.
“In my estimation,” Curd said, “he was the best handicapper who ever lived.”
Like the Bears to beat Dallas? The Bears’ odds to win are 2-to-3. Think Wisconsin will dominate underdog Northwestern at Camp Randall? A $50 wager will earn $20 if the Badgers are victorious.
That’s how the business of sports betting had been conducted until McNeil came along.
He’d rate teams, produce a final score. That guided his odds betting. He made the natural advancement to earmarking the points differential as the spread itself.
“Wholesaling the odds,” he’d call it, enabling the house to retain 10% of the action as the vigorish, or “juice.”
He’d bolt back to Chicago, after teaching at Riverdale and in Connecticut, to better capitalize on his mathematical acumen as a bank securities analyst.
In downtime, McNeil visited Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, monitoring baseball bets and wagering with fellow bleacher bums. Will that drunk fall down in the aisle? He’d set odds.
Back in the office, he’d make book on who’d get the sack. The bank president was a 3-1 choice. When that boss discovered the scheme, he canned McNeil, who was only upset that he had misgauged his own odds at 8-1.
He kept betting with Chicago’s biggest bookies. When they limited his action, he opened his own book — with point spreads — in the early 1940s. It was such a hit, after college football he weaved the spread into college hoops games.
McNeil advised competitors, wrote the New York Times Magazine in 1977, that the only way they’d succeed would be with his spreads.
Chicago native and former UIC pitcher John Murges, a professional bettor in Sarasota, Florida, envisions the Outfit, seeking more-mainstream odds, instructing associates to recruit at the University of Chicago.
“Find a really smart guy, but leave the Tommy guns in the car.”
McNeil would shutter his operation when, he told a friend, mobsters “wanted to go partners with my brain.”
McNeil excelled as his unit size increased. In 1957, he documented having won in 25 of 27 college football seasons, earning an annual average of $320,000 — $3 million-plus in today’s dollars.
His baby, the point spread — even if adopted he had nurtured it into a beast — enabled commoners to comprehend betting’s complexities.
In its 1977 feature, the Times posited, “if it is proven beyond any doubt that McNeil did indeed invent the point spread, the National Football League may owe as much to him as it owes anyone — including Guglielmo Marconi.”
“The point spread made it easy for millions upon millions, who never go to a pro football game, to become emotionally [and financially] involved. And to turn anxiously to TV to find out how their investments are going.”
The spread has fueled legal sports betting in the United States, jumping from $21.6 billion in business in 2019, according to the American Gaming Association, to $57.7 billion last year.
Conversely, as the University of Chicago magazine noted in 2013, point-shaving scandals in college hoops in the ’50s were a byproduct of the spread. Similar incidents happened in every decade through the aughts.
Finally, there’s that early JFK link to someone whose probable invention, the point spread, would subsidize the underworld. Certain connections, events and ramifications altered history. Volumes fill libraries.
“So few degrees of separation,” Murges says. “Interesting and wild.”
McNeil suffered a stroke that, in his final years, left him immobile and speechless. At 77, he died in April 1981. When he did talk, it was often with a touch of arrogance.
“There are three things a gambler needs,” McNeil once said. “Money, guts and brains. If you don’t have one, you’re dead. I’ve got all three.”