Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Beat The Odds

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 27, 2011

How many times have you heard someone talk about beating the odds? What they really mean is that they have succeeded in securing the most desirable outcome despite the very little chance that such an outcome could be achieved.  The expression is all about overcoming improbability and although skill may be part of the equation, most often luck is the determining factor.

Oftentimes, gamblers talk about beating the odds.  What they mean is that they hope to manipulate any given situation to the gambler’s advantage in order to achieve success.  Hedging bets, card counting, and more do little more than readjust the probability factors involved in the situation.  In the end, it’s still luck that’s the determining factor.

On May 17, 2011 the Guardian newspaper in England published a story about the Europa League Final.  Few fans held out much hope for Braga with the odds against them as they hoped to win the trophy.  The general opinion was that the team didn’t stand a chance against Porto.  As luck would have it, Braga won and the newspaper headline and sub-headline trumpeted loudly:

How Braga Beat The Odds: Now For History And The Bragging Rights
Few give Braga a chance as they seek their first major European trophy against their illustrious near neighbours Porto

Idiomation came across an initiative of the Center For The Future Of Arizona entitled, “Beat The Odds Institute.”  Started in 2005 as a research study, it was established as an initiative in 2007 that disseminated information, offered training and provided support to schools and school districts in implementing the Beat The Odds principles.

The Lewiston Daily Sun published a news article on June 12, 1978 about Ken Cullers.  The story out of Berkeley, California reported on a man who battled against “prejudice, physical barrier, too much attention and 10,000-to-1 odds against a person blind from birth becoming a physicist” in their story entitled, “Blind Physicist Has Beaten The Odds.”

A combination of brains and computer technology helped Cullers beat the odds.  He’s graduating this month from the University of California at Berkeley with a doctorate in physics.

On September 13, 1957 the Sarasota Journal ran a story about William Patrick Beston, a Morristown, New Jersey resident dad who really had an interesting situation on his hand.  The story was entitled, “Naming 12 Daughters Problem, Dad Says.”

You think you’ve beaten the odds? Shot a hole in one? Drawn a perfect bridge hand or run the four-minute mile?  Then consider the William Patrick Bestons.  Today Beston will go to Memorial Hospital to bring home his wife and their 12th child — and 12th daughter — born Thursday.  Oddsmakers don’t make books on such a rarity, and doctors said only that the chances of having an even dozen children of the same sex are “slimmer than slim.”

On February 7, 1924 the Milwaukee Sentinel ran an advertisement by The Sentinel: Wisconsin’s Leading Financial Medium.  The headline read, “No Mystery About The Road To Independence.”  The copy read in part:

The road to independence is as plain as the National Highway with all its paving and sign posts.  The main thing is starting on the right road and then going ahead.  Many of the world’s greatest fortunes have been founded on the steady and consistent accumulation of capital at a reasonable rate of interest.  Still larger fortunes have been lost in the attempt to beat the odds that exist in speculation.  The clear path of thrift and wise investment is open to all who would follow it to success.

On November 12, 1900 the Daily Mail and Empire newspaper in Toronto, Ontario published a story entitled, “Magic Light Won At Long Odds.”  As with so many news stories about beating the odds, this story also had to do with betting on the outcome of a sports event, this one being horse races in New York at the Aqueduct Track on November 10.  The story began:

The last Saturday’s racing in the metropolitan district was well attended.  The track had dried out, and while not fast was safe and good, and one of the best cards of the season was run off.  The weather was clear and bright.  The sport began with a big upset, Magic Light winning at 50 to 1, while 100 to 1 was quoted in places.  He beat the odds on favourite, Prestidigitator, a neck, Shaw riding a weak finish.

Now we know from the Idiomation entry from Monday of this week, that the 14th century trading game “Hand In Cap” was responsible for the term “odds” in the context of equalization between participants. 

During the 1680s, the game of golf allowed for some players to be granted additional strokes in what was called “assigning the odds.” This was done by the precursor of the modern Handicap Committee Chairman, who was referred to as the “adjustor of the odds.” In this way, the playing field between all golfers was level.

As with any situation where there are adjustments of the odds, betting soon followed.  The tradition of carefully entering bets on which golfers would win their match based on the odds and the adjustment of the odds soon followed. 

Allan Robertson (1815 – 1859), was known as the first great professional golfer.  He earned a significant portion of his income through wagering on his own golf games. The concept of giving strokes allowed Robertson to set up matches with golfers who weren’t at his level which, of course, allowed him the best chances of beating the odds and winning any money wagered.

Long before beating the odds was part of golf, the word “odds” in the wagering sense of the word was used by William Shakespeare in his play “2 Henry IV” written and published in 1597.  In Act 5, Scene 5 takes place in a public place near Westminster Abbey.  The following exchange between The Lord Chief Justice and Lancaster is found:

LANCASTER
The king hath call’d his parliament, my lord.

LORD CHIEF-JUSTICE
He hath.

LANCASTER
I will lay odds that, ere this year expire,
We bear our civil swords and native fire
As far as France: I beard a bird so sing,
Whose music, to my thinking, pleased the king.
Come, will you hence?

Obviously the expression was quite popular in William Shakespeare‘s time as it also appears in his play “Othello” written in 1603, in Act 2, Scene 3 which takes place in a hall in the castle.  Those in the hall along with Iago include Othello, Desdemona, Cassio and Montano.

IAGO
I do not know: friends all but now, even now, 
In quarter, and in terms like bride and groom 
Devesting them for bed; and then, but now– 
As if some planet had unwitted men– 
Swords out, and tilting one at other’s breast, 
In opposition bloody. I cannot speak 
Any beginning to this peevish odds
And would in action glorious I had lost 
Those legs that brought me to a part of it!

While the expression”beat the odds” may not be in either of William Shakespeare‘s plays, it is easy to see that “the odds” was the term used in trying to equalize the playing field for all participants in any given situation.  And where efforts are made to equalize the playing field, there will always be those who try to beat those odds.

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