The Odds Couple

January 31, 2011

The only sure bet about the Super Bowl is that Brian Depolo and Scott Ward are sure to bet on the Super Bowl. That's because for the last 22 years Depolo and Ward have wagered against each other on almost every football game, college or pro, for which they can find a published point spread. Go ahead and guess how many games that is. Wrong. It's more. According to the meticulous records that Depolo keeps, they had wagered 22,253 times going into last weekend, and their wins totals were remarkably close—10,911 for Ward and 10,830 for Depolo, with 513 pushes. These guys should be either in Guinness World Records or a 12-step program.

Ward and Depolo, both 47, don't care if it's Patriots versus Steelers or Eastern Washington versus Montana State. Every game gets action—$1 for college picks and $2 for NFL (except the Monday-night matchups, which are $5 affairs). While this accounts for only a microscopic percentage of the billions bet on football each year, no one wagers more comprehensively than the two buddies, who met as freshmen roommates at the University of the Pacific in 1982.

Do they need professional help? "I don't know about that," Ward, a financial recruiter for New York Life Insurance in Portland, says, "but I sure could use a sweep this weekend." (He had the Bears and the Jets in the conference championship games.) Actually, there's no need to call the Gamblers Anonymous hotline. Depolo and Ward never bet more than they can afford, and they've retained a freshman sense of humor about their ritual.

The weekly phone calls to make their picks are filled with inside jokes and lingo. Boston College must be pronounced with an overdone New England accent. Michigan is always sung to the tune of Phil Collins's I Missed Again. If one of them says he's betting on "Forehead," the other knows that he's referring to Temple. "Testicles"? Ball State.

Depolo and Ward discovered their mutual love of sports, as well as a shared passion for competition, as soon as they met. "We would play Strat-O-Matic baseball, golf, Ping-Pong, beer pong and anything else that involved winning and losing," says Depolo, who's chief financial officer of a resort-design firm in San Francisco. But nothing grabbed them like betting. They began by picking a handful of games each week, then started putting a few bucks on every NFL game until one of them—neither remembers whom—said, "Why don't we bet them all?" Since then every Saturday morning during football season has been essentially the same. They prepare for about 30 minutes, going over the point spreads and deciding which games they feel most sure about. Then they spend about an hour on the phone making their picks in alternating fashion. If Depolo chooses the Raiders to cover the spread against the Chiefs, for instance, that means Ward automatically has Kansas City. Ward then gets to lay the next bet, and so on.

Neither of them gets any resistance from his family—Depolo is married with two sons, and Ward is divorced with a 14-year-old daughter—for taking a chunk out of so many weekends. Maybe that's because the tradition predates their loved ones. "My daughter has grown up understanding that every Saturday morning, Dad calls his best friend," Ward says. That friendship is always evident, even when hidden under a landfill's worth of trash talk.

"Most of it comes from Scott," Depolo says.

"That's because I'm better at it," Ward says.

"See what I mean?" Depolo says. "He's all wind."

The ritual endures because of the friendship. Or maybe it's the other way around. Depolo and Ward haven't seen each other in five years, yet they are as close as they were when they lived in the same cramped dorm room. Who knows what would have happened if they had not kept betting? They might have drifted apart, only exchanging holiday cards or the occasional Facebook post. Instead the connection has stayed strong. "We've been through weddings, births, deaths and everything else together," Depolo says. In fact, they have only twice skipped a weekend of betting—after the death of Ward's mother and when his beloved family dog had to be put to sleep.

The buddies settle up at the end of each season, and many years the difference is less than $100, although Depolo once had to cut a check for $286 to Ward, the largest sum that has changed hands. As of Sunday morning Depolo was up $49 for the season, with the help of an 11-game winning streak on Monday Night Football. But Ward knows that he has plenty of time to catch up. "We'll be doing this forever," he says, imagining the two at a seniors center some day. "A couple of old guys, betting each other, playing Strat-O-Matic and drinking Coors Light."

Or Ward could take the monetary lead in a hurry. He has a standing $1 bet with Depolo that the opening kickoff of the Super Bowl will be an onside kick. "So he loses that buck to me every year," Depolo says. But Ward has 100-to-1 odds on the bet. "All I need is for it to happen once, and I make all the money back and more," he says. "I just need to get lucky one time." That might be too much to ask. Betting has given each a friend for life, and you can't get much luckier than that.

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A 22-year football betting ritual has kept two friends as close as they were when they were freshmen living in the same cramped dorm room.

PHOTOJOHN BURGESS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)