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Throughout history, people have bet on everything and anything. From the mundane to the extremely important. From casino bets to bets on science, and even the future of humanity.
These bets can serve as vehicles to win or lose tons of money or as a way to prove a point. Other times they are just done on a lark.
Either way, bets, and wagers have literally shaped history.
Learn more about some of the world’s greatest wagers on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
You’ve probably heard the expression, “put your money where your mouth is.” It basically means if you strongly hold an opinion, you should make some sort of wager with real consequences to prove it.
The corollary to this expression is “talk is cheap,” meaning there is no cost in expressing an opinion.
Making a wager is usually a good thing in that it requires both parties to clarify exactly what they mean and how any disagreement can be resolved.
With that, let’s look at some of the more famous wagers in history.
One of the best-known wagers from ancient history involved Mark Antony and Cleopatra.
They made a wager as to who could throw the most expensive banquet.
Mark Antony threw his banquet, and then Cleopatra responded in kind by taking an expensive pearl earring off her ear and dropping it into a cup of vinegar, letting it dissolve, and then drinking it.
In this story, Cleopatra won the bet, but this story may be apocryphal. The reason is that while vinegar can indeed dissolve a pearl, it isn’t something that happens instantly.
I had to go and check this myself as I figured someone probably made a video doing exactly this, and sure enough, there are videos of people dissolving pearls in vinegar. However, it takes six to twenty-one days for a pearl to fully dissolve.
So, either Cleopatra waited a couple of weeks to win her bet, or it didn’t happen.
Believe it or not, one area where wagers have been extremely important is science. Several scientific advances were made in order to win a wager, and in many cases, the loser of a bet was extremely happy to have lost.
One of the most important works in scientific history was created in response to a wager.
In 1684, the noted English architect Christopher Wrenn was having a discussion with the scientists ??Edmund Halley and Robert Hooke when the subject came up of Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion.
Wrenn issued a challenge for anyone to prove Kepler using the inverse square law. He offered a rare book as a prize and created a deadline of two months.
Halley couldn’t solve the problem and turned to his friend Isaac Newton. Newton applied himself to the problem. He didn’t solve the problem in two months, but he did eventually solve it several years later. The result was the groundbreaking text, the Principia Mathematica.
Speaking of Kepler, his laws of motion came about in small part to a wager.
Johannes Kepler was an assistant for the astronomer Tycho Brahe. Kepler was working on his theories and asked Brahe for data about the orbit of Mars. He bet he could figure out the orbit of Mars in eight days.
He lost the bet as it took him eight years, but we got the laws of planetary motion as a result.
One of the worst scientists when it came to betting was the physicist Steven Hawking. His colleague John Preskill noted, “Although Stephen Hawking is without doubt a great scientist, he’s a bad gambler.”
In 1974, Hawking made a bet with physicist Kip Thorne about Cygnus X-1, which was a major source of X-rays. Throne bet that the source the x-rays was a black hole, and Hawking bet that it was not.
Hawking conceded the best in 1990.
He made another bet in 1997. This time, he and Kip Thorne bet John Preskill about information loss in black holes. Hawking and Throne said that anything that went into a black hole lost all information.
He conceed this bet in 2004.
He made another bet in the early 2000s that the Higgs-Boson Particle would never be found, and he lost that bet in 2012.
In every case, he was glad to have lost his bets. He said that he made public bets because they brought attention to the scientific problems which he was working on.
One of the most famous bets in history was to settle a dispute which had raged for centuries.
The question was, when a horse is running, at any point are all four of its feet off the ground at the same time?
The person in question who made the wager was Lealand Stanford, the former governor of California and namesake of Stanford University.
According to legend, in 1872, he bet $25,000 that at some point all four legs of a horse were off the ground when it was running…and $25,000 was a lot at that time.
To solve the riddle, he hired the English photographer Eadweard Muybridge (my-bridge) to prove this once and for all.
Muybridge developed photographic techniques to take highspeed photos. In 1878 he created a series of 12 high speed cameras that would trigger when a horse tripped wires along a path.
The photographic evidence was conclusive. A horse did have all four feet off the ground, and Muybridge’s photo became one of the most famous in history.
There have been famous wagers made in the arts as well.
In the early 1970s, after the breakup of the Beatles, John Lennon was the only former Beatle which hadn’t had a number one song as a solo artist. Yes, Ringo had a number one hit before John Lennon did.
When he was recording his album Walls and Bridges, he had Elton John sit in on the recording of “Whatever Gets You Through The Night.” Elton told John Lennon that he thought the song was going to go to number one, and Lennon disagreed.
So, Elton bet him that if the song went to number one, John would have do a live concert with him. Lennon hated live concerts, which was one of the reasons why the Beatles stopped performing live.
The song did go to number one on the charts, so John Lennon honored his end of the bet and appeared on stage with Elton John on November 28, 1974, at Madison Square Garden in New York.
It was the last time John Lennon ever appeared live in concert.
A few years later, two filmmakers made a wager that turned out to be worth millions of dollars.
Steven Speilberg was filming Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and George Lucas was filming Star Wars. Lucas was very frustrated and depressed about how Star Wars was going when he visited Speilberg on the set of Close Encounters.
He was blown away by what Speilberg was doing and told him it was going to be the biggest blockbuster of all time.
Speilberg disagreed and thought that Star Wars was going to be a much bigger film.
So, the two made a wager. Speilberg would get 2.5% of the profits of Star Wars, and Lucas would get 2.5% of the profits of Close Encounters.
As it turned out, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a big hit, but Star Wars was a far bigger hit.
It is estimated that Speilberg has made $40 million dollars off his wager.
One of the funniest wagers of all time took place in 18th-century England. A rather rotund butcher by the name of Mr. Bullock challenged the Earl of Barrymore to a 100-yard footrace.
The Earl had a reputation as being a superior athlete, so the wager seemed a bit silly, but the butcher made two stipulations. First, he was to get a 35-yard head start, and second, he could pick the course that the race would take place.
The race was held in Black Lion Lane in London, which was a narrow ally. When the race started, Lord Barrymore caught up quickly, but because the butcher was so large, he couldn’t pass him in the narrow alley, and the butcher won the bet.
There have been political arguments that have been settled by wagers. The most famous of which was a bet between the economist Julian L. Simon and biologist Paul Ehrlich.
Ehrlich believed that more humans led to resource scarcity. Simon believed that more humans lead to more innovation. The two men had a public spat that lasted for years.
Eventually, Simon to Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was.
In 1980, they made a bet. Ehrlich was allowed to pick any five resources which he thought would increase in price over the next ten years. He selected chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten. They purchased on paper $200 of each commodity for a total of $1000
On September 29, 1990, the inflation-adjusted prices of the commodities would be recorded. If the prices were more than the price in 1980, Simon would pay Ehrlich the difference. If the price had gone down, Ehrlich would pay Simon the difference.
Between 1980 and 1990, the planet grew by 800 million people, the most in history. However, the price of the commodities had gone down, and Julian Simon had won. Three of the prices went down in nominal price, and all five went down in inflation-adjusted price.
Paul Ehrlich paid him $576.07.
There is a website which is specifically designed for these sort of bets. It is called longbets.org, and it currently tracks 887 long-term bets, many of which have already been resolved.
Some bets are not so serious.
In 2009, Shaquille O’Neal was at the height of his popularity. He bet one of his managers that he could walk up to the White House and get admitted. He couldn’t use any of his connections, he just had to walk up to the entrance and get allowed in.
When playing in Washington, Shaq got in a cab, went to the White House, and went to the gate. Unfortunately, despite knowing who he was, he was not allowed in.
He lost the wager, which consisted of 1,000 pushups.
In the movie Pulp Fiction, Bruce Willis plays a boxer who bets on himself when he was supposed to take a dive. Something similar happened in 2001.
Bernard Hopkins was scheduled to fight Felix Trinidad for the Middleweight WBA Championship. He was a four to one underdog.
As part of the fight, he was paid $100,000 by a henna tattoo company to have a henna tattoo on his back. He took the entire $100,000 and bet on himself to win.
….which he did, by getting a technical knockout in the 12th round.
There are people who just like to gamble….a lot.
Doyle Brunson is one of the greatest poker players of all time. One of his biggest bets, however, had nothing to do with cards.
In 2003, he turned 70 years old and had a problem with weight. He was approaching 300 pounds and had problems standing up from the poker table.
A group of friends concerned about his weight figured the best way to get him to lose weight was to make a bet with him. They bet him $100,000 at 10 to 1 odds that he couldn’t lose 100 pounds in two years.
The first year, he lost nothing. Several months into the second year, he lost nothing. Then he went on a diet of nothing by catfish and parmesan cheese and lost the 100 pounds and made a million dollars.
…and then proceeded to lose it all at the card table the night he won it.
On September 24, 1980, the largest single casino bet at that time took place at the Binion’s Horseshoe Casino in Las Vegas.
A totally unknown man named William Bergstrom entered the casino with two suitcases. In one suitcase was $777,000. The other suitcase was empty.
The money came from loans he took out. The empty suitcase was for his winnings.
He put everything on the don’t pass line on the craps table, which is an even money bet. Benny Binion, the casino’s owner, agreed to take the bet.
Bergstrom won, and Binion gladly helped him stack his money in the suitcase.
Bergstrom didn’t worry about paying off his loans if he lost because he was going to kill himself.
He traveled around the world for several years and returned to the Binion Horseshoe on March 24, 1984, and did the same thing, this time with $538,000. He won again and won three more bets that trip for an additional $117,000.
Then on November 16, he came back to the casino with a suitcase filled with $550,000 in cash, $140,000 in gold Krugerrands, and $310,000 in cashier’s checks, for a cool million dollars.
This time his luck ran out, and he lost everything.
Perhaps the greatest gambler of all time was the Australian media mogul, Kerry Packard. Packard was a billionaire and probably one of the biggest whales in casino history.
He had casino trips to the UK and to Las Vegas, where he won and lost tens of millions of dollars. His gambling exploits were the stuff of legend.
The greatest story about Packard involved a trip he made to Las Vegas. There are many different versions of the story, but supposedly he was playing blackjack at a table by himself when a man from Texas started bothering him.
The Texan was making a big scene and demanded a seat at the table, saying, “I’m worth $100 million dollars”.
In response, Packard pulled a coin out of his pocket and told him, “oh really? I’ll flip you for it.”
When confronted with risking his entire fortune on a coin flip, the Texan clammed up and walked away.
People can and have bet on anything and everything. Wagering has always been with us and probably always will be.
So long as people keep wagering, there will probably always be fascinating bets which pique our interest.
The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener Qwij, over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:
Favorite Daily Podcast, New Completionist Member
This is my favorite daily podcast. Listening makes me want to shout “Shaku!” The most disappointing part of joining the completionist club was I had no other topics to listen to. Not sure if this has been covered, but could we get an episode on how speakers of the same languages use weirdly different terms in different places, such as how in the UK bbq sauce is called brown sauce? 12 thumbs up.
Thanks, Qwij! If you have joined the completionist club, one option is to go for elite platinum status by listening to every episode….twice. It has been done.
Also, an episode on how different words are used by different people speaking the same language might be possible.
As for the twelve thumbs up, I appreciate it, but you might want to get that checked out.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.