Book Review: The Madness of March

Alan Jay Zaremba. The Madness of March: Bonding and Betting with the Boys in Las Vegas. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. 228 pages.

Sports betting is one of the most popular, yet least studied, forms of gambling. Researchers have been trying to get inside the heads of slot players for years, and there’s been mathematical studies of card games since the 16th century. But sports betting flies under the radar, like bingo, which is odd for such a widespread betting form.

Alan Jay Zaremba’s The Madness of March is a welcome corrective to sports betting’s analytical oversight. Part participant observer-based ethnography, part academic study, The Madness of March gives a rare insight into sports betting by focusing on one week in one place: the opening round of the NCAA college basketball tournament on the Las Vegas Strip.

Setting his book here, Zaremba is at the epicenter of the year’s most frenzied burst of casual betting. Essentially, Zaremba spends six days in Las Vegas and writes about what he experiences. He correctly reaches the conclusion that most bettors are doing for the fun, not for profit, as nearly everyone he encounters is a 20-50 year old male who’s been coming to Vegas for years during the tournament to place bets, drink beer, watch games, and have fun–though the first three often make the last an elusive goal.

Zaremba is an excellent observer and a good writer; he knows enough to capture the inherent absurdity around him, but usually has a light enough hand to let the reader draw his own conclusions rather than explicitly making the point that most bettors who insist they have a sure thing are delusional. Part of what makes the book fun is the interaction between bettors: each wants to know what the other is betting, and many share their picks and their methodologies, which run from intricate to nonsensical. On almost every page, a bettor fatuously declares that his latest pick is a “lock,” a guaranteed sure thing. It gets monotonous, but it’s true. Towards the end of the book, one of Zaremba’s subjects declares, “Everyone here has a lock, and no one here has a lock.” As the author says, it’s probably the most accurate thing anyone’s said in days.

If you’ve ever wondered why scads of post-college guys spend the better part of a week living on beer and hot wings while feverishly analyzing their next wager, you’ll get an answer in Zaremba’s book. He captures the scene in all of its frat boy inanity, but reserves critical judgment (with a few exceptions). The Madness of March, then, is most valuable as an ethnographic survey of Strip sports betting at its most frenetic: 48 games in 4 days make for a high pressure, drama-filled long weekend, with big bettors and small bettors winning and losing. It’s a fantastic look inside the psychology and sociology of the casual sports bettor, droves of whom descend on Las Vegas every March.

I found only two potential problems with the book. First, the action can get repetitive beyond monotony. At first, seeing Zaremba and his brothers in bets analyze, wager, then live or die with the results is exciting. After two days of this, the bloom comes off the rose. This, however, is much of the point, I suspect, and Zaremba’s weariness, which becomes overwhelming towards the end, is both true to the reality of his subject and his own experiences. Staying on the Strip for six days, drinking an untold number of beers, and betting is exhausting.

My second concern is that Zaremba would retreat to the comfortable cocoon of academic irony. It’s an approach that mars most would-be scholarly looks at the real world: the writer as cynical observer, watching those around him blundering into oblivion and making snide comments that only he, and his oh-so-insightful readers, can appreciate. There’s a good deal of buffoonery in evidence throughout the book, and this would be an easy and safe route for the author to take.

He does not, however. By sharing his own picks, he shows us that he is just as prone to making bad picks as everyone else, because in retrospect no amount of analysis can determine who will beat or cover the spread. It’s a crapshoot that makes a mockery of reason. He doesn’t consider himself to be above the rest of the crowd, and as a mildly self-deprecating narrator, he doesn’t try to lord it over the reader, either.

Best of all, Zaremba follows his main narrative with an epilogue that brilliantly captures the allures of fanhood, and caps the book with as spirited and eloquent a defense of becoming emotionally invested in kids’ games being played by adults as I’ve ever seen.

I’m not being ironic when I say that The Madness of March is a lock. It’s an essential read for anyone who wants to get a better window on one of the more interesting gambling and sports subcultures.

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