[Ed's Note: Chad Millman is a Senior Deputy Editor at ESPN The Magazine, and once wrote a book called The Odds. His column takes a close look at the culture surrounding the bet.]
Karen Wright is so good it'll break your heart.
I don't mean because she works two shifts a day as a school bus attendant for special needs kids in Tucson; or because the western-frontier twang in her voice snaps with pragmatism; or because she's still upbeat even after spending part of this year in the hospital with burn-like blisters over 70% of her body.
It's because of this: When I called the 49-year-old mom and grandma, who has spent most of the year atop the Pigskin Pick 'Em overall leaderboard, and asked her how the point spread played into her system, she answered thusly: "I just don't know anything about it. So it doesn't."
See what I mean? Crushing.
Every week when I log on to make my picks, I see that leaderboard down the right side of the front page and think to myself, who are these people? And why are they doing so much better than me?
I've been covering the NFL as a writer and editor for 15 years. I get a Scouts Inc. game-by-game breakdown sent to me once a week; I see reports from ESPN's crack research staff—a group that goes so deep it makes the CIA look like it's just learning how to spell "bin Laden;" I've got John Clayton on freakin' speed dial. (Do you have any idea how many spreadsheets he has breaking down the league?) And yet, I'm currently ranked 34,692nd. Hurts my credibility, I know.
A few weeks ago, in an effort to get my head straight, I called Dr. Eric Morse, the president of the International Society for Sport Psychiatry. He's a smart man, smart enough to have weaned himself off of fantasy a few years ago because he spent so much time analyzing teams he stopped having fun. He told me about some of the athletes he's treated for gambling addictions. They were horrible at betting, he said, because they thought they knew so much about sports and performance that they'd actually outsmart themselves. I'm no jock, but Morse told me that, essentially, I know too much. I was suffering from analysis by paralysis. For his most troubled patients, Dr. Morse might prescribe mood stabilizers. I could not convince him I qualified.
So for help, I reached out to people with less access to insider dope than me. What could they teach me?
Heading into Week 12, I sent interview requests to the ESPN profiles of the five people tied as Pigskin Pick 'Em's overall leaders. Karen (she goes by the handle bunnyslayer) is the only one who responded with interest, although it took her eight days to reply. As a woman who's been branded an expert, she's gotten loads of propositions. Before she cleaned up the comments page on her profile, it read like the men's room stall at Webster Hall (really, guys, have you no shame?). She did a background check on me too, not only Googling my name, but also calling 411 to confirm my phone number.
"What can I say," she says. "I have to be leery. I've gotten a lot of strange requests."
Ten years ago, when Karen, her now ex-husband and their three kids moved back to the United States after his stint in the military, they joined a Pigskin Pick 'Em group with the rest of their family. Between aunts, uncles, cousins and kids, there were about 25 people playing.
"We had been stationed in the UK and got about one hour of an NFL game every Sunday," says Karen. "I grew up playing softball and babysitting, didn't know a thing about football."
But that first year, she guessed her way to second place in her group. A decade later, she's still playing and winning, only more now than ever—she's currently four points behind the overall leaders—even though her philosophy hasn't changed all that much.
She favors home teams, bye teams and teams that won the week before. She likes the Titans and Panthers, because she always has, and the Cardinals, because she's a homer. She's got the DirecTV package and watches five or six games a weekend, but doesn't pay attention to any NFL news during the week. She doesn't want to know who's been injured, who the quarterback is or if the star player has shot himself in the leg.
"I go in there and boom, boom, boom," she says. "When I make a decision, I don't second guess it. If I question a game, I am going to lose it every time." She's a classic thin-slicer.
Then she added this precious bit, which is enough to make me want to call up the good doctor for that script: "I shock myself every week. It's just like, wow, how is this happening?"
A lot of her friends, and some of the less sketchy commenters, have told Karen she should head to Vegas and let it ride. She put the kibosh on that idea.
"I lead a simple life and money is hard to come by, no need to throw it away," she says. "I'm cheap. I'll play the penny slots at the Indian casinos for hours and win a couple hundred dollars. I did play craps once in Tahoe. Had no idea what I was doing, but I did win. Just got lucky, I guess."
This from a woman who took some over-the-counter pain pills this past April and wound up in the hospital feeling like, "someone threw battery acid all over my body." She was suffering from Stevens-Johnson syndrome, a rare reaction to medication that makes someone's skin feel like it's burning from the inside out. She's since recovered ("steroids and morphine helped a lot," she says), and is grateful her face was spared, but she's got scars on her legs, belly, back and arms. And there's this hurdle while living in the Arizona desert: She's really supposed to avoid the sun.
"I do the best I can with that," she says.
Like she does with her picks, which are providing her with one more salve this season: "If my ex-husband realized I was on the pick 'em leader board," she says, "it would break his heart."
He wouldn't be alone.
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