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What We Mean When We Say “All Chalk”

WHO USES IT? “SportsCenter” anchors/bookies who advertise on talk radio/your co-worker who likes to expound on his grand theory of bracketology.

EXAMPLE: “If only I’d picked all chalk last year, I wouldn’t have lost to Digger Phelps again.”

When you picked your bracket for this month’s NCAA basketball tournament, you picked it with an eye to win—after all, you had $5 riding on it in the office pool, part of the estimated $12 billion that goes into March Madness betting each year. So you probably did your research and went mostly with the favorites, like Duke and Indiana. In other words, you picked chalk. “There Will Be Chalk,” predicted Basketball Prospectus when last year’s bracket was set. (It was right: Top-ranked Kentucky won.)

Illustration by Chris Yoon

The term was born in the Runyon-esque world of gambling halls around the turn of the last century. Back when betting on the ponies was in vogue, the odds were on a blackboard for all to see. As more and more wagers came in for the favored horse, the bookie would make the odds less steep to make sure he did not lose money. This resulted in his repeatedly erasing old odds and writing new ones, in the process scaring up a cloud of chalk. (Today, everything is liable to be computerized, though horse betting is still parimutuel—which means the odds are determined by where the money is staked.)

“Chalk” survived in the broader lexicon, along with other sports-betting relics like “underdog” (but not, sadly, “mud lark,” “baby race,” or “railrunner”). Surviving, as well, is the soft stigma of picking too much chalk, or being a “chalk-eater.” After President Barack Obama made his bracket last year, Salon said his “addiction to chalk” was “a fitting microcosm of his presidency.” (This year, he has mostly chalk in his Sweet Sixteen, and number-one-seed Indiana winning it all.) There is something unadventurous about picking all chalk, which is probably why you picked at least one dark horse—Creighton?—to improbably reach the Elite Eight.