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Betting And Chalk


March 27, 2022

When you picked your bracket for this month’s NCAA basketball tournament, you picked it with an eye to win—after all, you had $5 riding on it in the office pool, part of the estimated $12 billion that goes into March Madness betting each year. So you probably did your research and went mostly with the favorites, like Baylor and Gonzaga. In other words, you picked chalk.

The term was born in the world of gambling halls around the turn of the last century. Back when betting on the ponies was in vogue, the odds were on a blackboard for all to see. As more and more wagers came in for the favored horse, the bookie would make the odds less steep to make sure he did not lose money. This resulted in his repeatedly erasing old odds and writing new ones, in the process scaring up a cloud of chalk. (Today, everything is liable to be computerized, though horse betting is still parimutuel—which means the odds are determined by where the money is staked.)

“Chalk” survived in the broader lexicon, along with other sports-betting relics like “underdog” (but not, sadly, “mud lark,” “baby race,” or “railrunner”). Surviving, as well, is the soft stigma of picking too much chalk, or being a “chalk-eater.” When President Obama made his bracket one year, Salon said his “addiction to chalk” was “a fitting microcosm of his presidency.” There is something unadventurous about picking all chalk.

By the way, a “baby race” is race for two-year old horses, especially early in the season. 🤪

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