Blog Excerpts

March Madness: Are You Betting on "Chalk"?

The NCAA College Basketball Tournament, nicknamed "March Madness," is in full swing again, and some early-round upsets have spelled bad news for those betting on chalk, meaning the favorites in the tournament. How did the term chalk come to be associated with teams favored by oddsmakers? A Word Routes column by Ben Zimmer has the answer.

The column explains:

The history of chalk dates back to the old days of horse-racing, when bookmakers (or "bookies") would set the odds for each horse by writing them on a chalkboard at on-track gambling stations. The odds would change during the pre-race betting period depending on the amount wagered on each horse, so the bookmakers would often need to erase the posted odds and "chalk up" new ones before the beginning of the race.

The bookies at the track had to be skillful with the chalk to keep their slate-boards up to date with the latest odds. In the reporting on horse-racing around the turn of the twentieth century, sports journalists often referred to bookmakers with such flowery appellations as "the lively knights of the chalk and blackboard," or more simply, "the knights of the chalk." Chalk gradually came to stand for the bookmakers and their oddsmaking though the process of metonymy, defined as "substituting the name of an attribute or feature for the name of the thing itself." [...]

Eventually the chalk metonym made its transition to other types of sports gambling. Betting pools for the NCAA Basketball Tournament have proved to be a significant breeding ground for chalk talk. At the beginning of the Tournament, when the teams are announced and the schedule is set, fans go about filling their brackets with the teams they expect to win in each round. In offices and bars around the country, informal pools are set up, with the most accurate predictor of the games' outcomes winning the big pot.

Betting on chalk (picking higher-seeded teams to beat lower-seeded teams) is a boring yet reliable method of filling out a bracket... But chalk-ophiles always dread the so-called "bracket buster," the team that comes out of nowhere and wreaks havoc with the safe predictions. Of course, such unexpected "sleepers" or "Cinderella teams" are very often the most fun to watch.

Read the whole column on "Chalk Talk" here!


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