LUNCHTIME. POURING RAIN HAS TURNED my vertical office window into a water sculpture. I’m working my way through some cafeteria beef chili and a backstack of university magazines. The chili is a bit generic, but not bad, especially with a bag of pita chips. The magazines are numbingly mundane. By luck of the draw I’ve pulled a selection that features one uninspired, predictable issue after another. Lead paragraphs flat and uninviting. Pallid attempts to brag about negligible sports triumphs. (“We finished 20th! Best ever!”) Stories that tell me nothing beyond what I already know, in lifeless prose. Boring photography. Design cliches.
Just a bad stack.
Then, on pg. 54 of the Sept/Oct ’13 issue of The University of Chicago Magazine, a two-pager by associate editor Jason Kelly. (Associate editors make the best writers. It’s a rule.) Every issue of Chicago contains a “legacy” piece about some alum and his or her lasting contribution. Kelly’s legacy piece is about Charles K. McNeil, and it’s a beauty. McNeil was a gambler. Not the sort of gambler who is revered for taking the big chance on an entrepreneurial venture or going for it on fourth down in the Rose Bowl or pinning his whole career on a scientific theory that seemed to make no sense at the time. No, McNeil was the gambling sort of gambler. He bet on sports. For a living and really well. So well that one of Chicago’s biggest sports books limited how much he could wager and McNeil attracted unwanted attention from mobsters. He may or may not have invented the points spread; whoever did should have gotten the Nobel.
The story is great for several reasons. First, there’s its unlikelihood as an alumni magazine story. Our magazines brag about all those dedicated scholars and earnest undergraduates and winning coaches (“20th place!”) and benefactors who just want to pay it forward. They don’t often brag about bookies from the Class of 1925. But McNeil’s a great story, and let’s give Chicago a round of applause for recognizing that.
Then there’s Kelly’s prose. Man can write. I love the lead graphs:
Charles K. McNeil, PhB’25, would bet on anything. An afternoon at Wrigley Field involved not only a wager on the outcome but an array of side bets about the game and beyond, like whether a stumbling drunk in the bleachers would fall down. During the depths of the Depression, McNeil even laid odds on the next person to be fired at the bank where he worked as a securities analyst.
Successful beyond the wildest dreams of most gamblers, McNeil lost on that one. He put the bank president at 3 to 1 to be ousted, but the boss got wind of it and canned McNeil instead. “I had myself at 8 to 1,” he told William Barry Furlong in a 1977 New York Times Magazine story that recounted McNeil’s influence on the pastime that became his profession: sports gambling.
My that’s good. Just the right selection of details. Just the right diction: “the boss got wind of it and canned McNeil instead.” The dry wit. The great quote: “I had myself at 8 to 1.” The rest of the piece works just as well. (So does the clever illustration by Daniel Hertzberg.) Two pages in the magazine that light it up. Good stuff.