This week, the News celebrates the 50th anniversary of its longest-running feature, the “I Make the Odds” column penned since July of 1958 by Harvey Preakston.
Preakston, a graduate of City College and the son of former rugby impresario Reginald Preakston, joined the paper in 1955 as a young sports reporter who was assigned to cover Mighty Elms games. However, he soon proved to be somewhat uncanny as a prognosticator, and his reputation as being able to lay astonishingly precise odds on upcoming sporting events soon spilled over from the office to his column. So accurate were his predictions that he was thrice investigated by the city’s police department and once by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who compelled him to sign a statement that he was not acting in cahoots with any organized crime syndicate. After correctly predicting the winner of every World Series from 1955 to 1958 within one month of the start of the season, his astonishing ability to figure the odds netted him his very first column.
Thanks to ongoing suspicions regarding the pernicious influence of gamblers and other shady criminal types, the News was obligated to include, at the top of every “I Make the Odds” column, the now-legendary ‘FOR AMUSEMENT ONLY’ disclaimer, originally printed in red ink at considerable cost to the paper. (Rumors that they recouped that cost through judicious betting on Harvey Preakston’s odds have never been confirmed.) After the initial blush of novelty wore off, it began to be reported that Preakston’s sporting predictions were correct only around 68%-75% of the time, depending on the sport; his oddsmaking was nearly infallible with baseball, basketball and women’s tennis, while he inexplicably struggled with football and cricket. After this, law enforcement interest in his work began to wane – apparently, it went unexplained to officers of the court that this was still well in excess of the percentage dictated by chance. The disclaimer reverted to black ink, but Harvey Preakston kept on predicting.
As the years went by, he proved equally adept at laying odds on events that had nothing to do with sports: he correctly predicted the results of the 1960 presidential race, down to the deciding state and the number of electoral votes won by Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy; and he also proved correct that the Russians would launch an orbital spacecraft before the U.S., but also that the Americans would land a man on the moon before 1970 (an event upon which he first laid odds in 1962). Subsequently, the “I Make the Odds” column became a venue for his bookmaking on all sorts of events, sports-related and otherwise: from the winners of local city council races to the ages at which his friends’ daughters would get married (a tendency which earned him at least one black eye from editorial director Ken Marsh), he laid odds on it all.
Some of his predictions were better than others. While he’s legendary for his World Series picks, his correct prediction that Kissinger High would go without a football victory from 1972 to 1978, and his astoundingly precise oddsmaking on the weight of the prize catch at the American Bass Anglers Association tournament in 2002, few people today recall his dismal record predicting World Cup victors (as in 1966, when he put the odds of victory at 2:1 for the Canadian national team, which was not in the tournament), or his having laid 7:1 odds that, following the Blizzard of ’89, civilization would permanently collapse, never to recover.
However, through it all, he has been known as a good-humored, friendly voice, a confident oddsmaker always willing to hand out tips to anyone who would ask for them, and, in recent years, a beloved fixture in the city’s journalistic scene. Preakston, now 73 years old and believed to be one of the wealthiest men in the city despite his claim that he never gambles or in any way acts on his own odds, will celebrate his anniversary this Saturday night with a large party for friends, colleagues and members of the press at the Typesetters’ Club on Landon Avenue. Preakston announced in yesterday’s column that the odds are 1:1 that he will “leave the party three sheets to the wind.”
– Leonard Pierce