By Henry Abbott
On TrueHoop on Monday, we dedicated considerable time to debunking some of the claims in Tim Donaghy's book.
That was shortly after sitting across from Donaghy and letting him hear about the same research, which you can now see on the video above.
In a nutshell, his book "Personal Foul" outlines many techniques he used in winning bets at an incredible rate, without fixing games. We checked into four of them (selected essentially at random, using the "which of these claims can we check?" technique) and found that those four betting techniques were not nearly as good as he said they would be. In fact, taken all together, they prove to be far worse than just betting at random.
Think of it like this, if you tell me you built a mansion, I might be skeptical. I might say, OK, here, build a dog house. Just so I can see that you can build something. Then if the doghouse falls all apart the first time the wind blows ... well, no, I have not proven you didn't build the house. But I know that the two things were built differently.
Donaghy is adamant that he won his bets at a rate -- better than 70% -- that one gambling expert told me would be hard to achieve even if you were fixing games. 15 out of 16 wins in one stretch!
In the book he is clear that these were the kinds of strategies that he used to achieve those results. Hearing they were not profitable strategies, he shifted course, saying there were other factors too. What were those? Why are they not in his tell-all book?
Why is your doghouse in ruins?
On one particular issue he changed his tune a few times. In the book, he is lavish in explaining the degree to which referee Dick Bavetta is reliable in keeping games close.
In debunking that claim, Donaghy heard me say that seven-point underdogs didn't have a good track record. That was a spread a gambling expert had told us was a good definition of a big underdog. Donaghy replied that he didn't bet on seven-point underdogs, he bet on double-digit underdogs. So, he was saying, I had made an error. I clarified later in the interview: Was he saying that if we looked up double-digit underdogs in Bavetta games, we'd find a winning strategy? He then changed his tune, saying that we should look for Bavetta games with 13- or 14-point underdogs.
None of it panned out. You lose money any which way you follow the advice:
In games with 7-point or bigger underdogs during the four years Donaghy was betting, the Bavetta strategy would have won in just 48 of 104 games.
In games with 10-point or bigger underdogs, you would have won 17 out of 42.
In games with 13-point or bigger underdogs won just two out of eight.
So then we are left clinging to his assertion that the FBI checked all this out, and they believe him. But is that even true? From Monday's post:
U.S. Attorney Benton J. Campbell wrote, in a letter to the presiding judge, that "there is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct." The letter adds that Donaghy has acknowledged that his gambling may have subconsciously influenced his work.
The NBA's investigation concluded, essentially, that Donaghy might not have rigged games. "It seems plausible to us that Donaghy may not have manipulated games," but admits that they have no thorough way to check. "Given the information currently in our possession, we and the League’s experts are unable to contradict the government’s conclusion that '[t]here is no evidence that Donaghy ever intentionally made a particular ruling during a game in order to increase the likelihood that his gambling pick would be correct.' ... Donaghy officiated close to 300 games in this period. Without knowing on which games or teams he wagered and without access to Donaghy’s explanation for his calls, we believe that it would be impossible to find that the government’s conclusion that he did not manipulate games is erroneous.
So we have one body saying he may have influenced some games, but they don't have evidence, and another saying there are tons of games that he might have influenced but they haven't watched.
Meanwhile, Donaghy points to the foreword of his book, penned by former FBI agent Phil Scala. The foreword goes to some trouble to lend credence to Donaghy, but specifically does not say he did not fix games.
Does that mean Tim Donaghy fixed games? No. But it does mean that nobody of note has said publicly that he did not, and that some of the ways he ways he won all those bets don't add up.