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February 5, 2013

Skewed Left

The Best Ways to Bet at the Ballpark

by Zachary Levine

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Hey, remember that idiot who told you a couple months back that you should never bet on baseball? Well, don’t listen to that guy. He’s kind of an idiot. Actually, I heard he picked the Tigers to win the World Series last year, so he’s probably just really bitter.

Anyway, that’s a stupid take. You should absolutely bet on baseball, because betting on baseball is a lot of fun. Face it. There are 2,430 regular season games, which is a lot. The NFL has 256 of roughly the same length. With 2,430 games, you can’t be expected to have a rooting interest in every one. That’s why chicken magnate/LHP Kenny Rogers invented Rotisserie baseball, which evolved into the fantasy game we know today.

It’s also why in lieu of placing one of those awful futures bets where you can hang onto one team, there are plenty of ways to make baseball interesting for the common fan with little of the preseason preparation that goes into fantasy and at times no prep beyond day-of accounting.

As we sit less than two months from the marathon of baseball season, you should know the following games, which have zero house edge because there is zero house. It’s just you and your friends and baseball and something over which to stop speaking to each other. Here are a few of my favorites beyond the ubiquitous fantasy game.

The cup game
My brother and I first learned of the cup game at a Yankees-Indians game in 1996. The Yankees, they of loaded roster and eventual World Series title, started Brian Boehringer that day and got slaughtered. So beyond just being in Yankee Stadium for the first time and Jim Thome and Manny Ramirez homering, the drunks in front of us were the primary source of entertainment. That’s mostly because over the course of the three-hour cup game, they were responsible for a section’s worth of swear words, which at ages 11 and 9 we thought was the funniest thing we’d ever seen.

The cup game (swearing actually optional) is your easiest choice for how to bet on baseball and keeps you going through any blowout. It’s a perfect option for people attending a game with lots of extraneous dollar bills and no forethought.

The basics: 3-6ish players, one cup, ideally rinsed. Plenty of $1 bills. Strangers in your row welcome if you keep an eye on their sneaky hands when they’re in possession of the cup. Put in money and collect money from the cup based on the game’s events.

The rules: These can vary, but they should be written down in pen before the game starts. The cup begins with the first person in the row and is passed down one batter at a time, changing hands when a new batter enters the box. Players have to pay or collect based on what happens when they’re holding the cup. For beginners at this, try a $1 ante, pay $2 for an out, $3 for a strikeout, $5 for a double play, $20 for a triple play. Don’t make too many collections, because you want to keep the pot big. Maybe collect $1 for each base on a hit and $3 for each run. What you’re really playing for is that the whole pot goes to the holder on a home run (with a re-ante) and when the game ends.

Variants: Oh, lots of things. Throw in $20 if somebody gets ejected while you’re holding the cup. Maybe pick some trigger event before the game like a 1-2-3 double play that pays like a home run.  By the time you’re veterans at this, the balance sheet of plus-plays and minus-plays should be more than a page long.

A little math: No matter how many players are playing, try to sit in the third seat from the start of the game. (Your fight over the third seat in the row should look something like this.) Eighty-five of the home runs in the top of the first last year came from the No. 3 hitter compared to 59 from the leadoff man and 38 from the No. 2 hitter.

The 13-run pool
This is a fun one because your money rides for a long time, but unlike the high-maintenance approach to midseason in fantasy baseball, there is absolutely no maintenance here. Plus, crazy comebacks are possible.

The basics: 30 players, $10 each or really any dollar amount if you want to raise or lower the stakes.

The rules: The object of the game is to pick a team with 29 other players picking their own and have your team be the first to score every number of runs from 0-13 in a game. The order of picking teams should be randomized since presumably, high-scoring teams will get “drafted” first. Teams can also be randomly assigned, but that isn’t as much fun. The pot goes to the player who checks off all 14 boxes first.

Variants: Send most of the pot to the winner, but have a couple landmarks along the way, like 10 percent to the player who knocks out 0-9 first, has a second hit on 13 first, etc. Or give a consolation prize at the end to whoever had the team that scored the most runs.

A little math: This pool has been getting more entertaining the last few years, since it’s taken longer to hand out the money. Last year, only 16 of the 30 teams even filled their 13-run boxes, and the 23 total games with exactly 13 runs were the fewest since 1992. There were 61 of those when offenses peaked in 2000.

The no-hitter pool
No-hitter pools are a staple of various major-league press boxes, and no, I will not say which ones. There’s a reason this is where they tend to thrive. You need a lot of people all in one place, so if you’re good at making friends, you can take this one out into the concourse with you.

The basics: 10 players, $5 per player, 10 playing cards – Ace, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and King.

The rules: The game is played only if a team has a no-hitter through three innings. If that’s the case, everybody throws in $5 and picks a card from a deck of 10. (If you’re not the type to bring playing cards to the stadium, though really who isn’t, rip up a page of your program and write numbers on it or somehow otherwise randomly assign them.) If you draw card 1-9 (Ace-9) that’s the batting order position of the person you need to break up the no-hitter. If it’s a pinch-hitter for the guy in your spot, it doesn’t matter, you still have that spot in the original batting order and win anyway. If you’re the unfortunate soul who draws the king, you need the team to throw the no-hitter for you to collect the $50.

A little math: Odds on each number obviously vary based on the quality of each hitter, the pitcher’s handedness and quality, and where the lineup will start in the fourth inning. But secondary markets in this game would be fun. Think the first three were a fluke and drew the joker? Try to sell it for a buck and cut your losses a bit.

Variants: There are minor ones—joker instead of king, or varying dollar amounts in different press boxes—but the rules are fundamentally unchanged. If you can’t find enough players, it works with five players each drawing two cards and a total pot of $25. If both teams are throwing no-hitters through three, use another suit for the other team.

The easiest of them all
This can be played on a whim with people at the ballpark, around the TV, or even over the internet if they’re good for the money. It requires only four people to keep you entertained through a whole game. It’s so easy that I’ve never heard a name for it. It’s basically fantasy baseball with a one-game season.

The basics: Four players, a National League game to watch, $5 each.

The rules: There are 16 starting position players in a National League game, so four bettors each draft four-man teams. (Use the snaking method for your drafts, so whoever picks fourth in the first round picks first in the second round.) Each bettor gets a point if his player singles or walks, two points for a double, three for a triple, four for a home run and one for a steal. That’s it. If your player comes out of the game, you’re done earning points from that spot, so players who tend to play the full nine have some more value. Whoever has the most points at the end takes the $20.

Variants: If you’re unfortunate enough only to have American League baseball and its 18 starting position players to watch, three six-man teams or six three-man teams do the job (or leave out the DHs and play as intended).

A little math: Addition isn’t that hard.

Those are some of my favorites that I’ve played or heard about. If you have any new games or variations on these to add, leave them in the comments below in order to ensure a fun season of zero-sum action for all our readers.

Zachary Levine is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Zachary's other articles. You can contact Zachary by clicking here

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