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Sweet Action: 8 Big Bets Made by Famous People

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One of the headlines coming out of Saturday night's GOP debate was Mitt Romney's offer to bet Rick Perry $10,000 to settle an argument over something Romney said (and removed) from his book No Apology. Perry hasn't taken the bait, but here are some big money bets other famous people have made.

1. Truman Defeats Dewey, Jimmy the Greek Defeats Vegas

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Everyone remembers the "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline from the 1948 presidential election, but Harry Truman wasn't the only big winner that night. Legendary gambler Jimmy the Greek had bet $10,000 on Truman at steep 17:1 odds. His logic? His research showed that female voters weren't too keen on candidates with facial hair, which didn't bode well for the mustachioed Dewey.

2. Arnold Palmer Bets on Romance

When golfing legend Arnold Palmer met his wife, Winnie, he had a problem that a lot of young guys run into: he couldn't afford an engagement ring. He was still an amateur golfer at the time, and he was barely scraping by on his meager income. Eventually, he borrowed money from a group of pals to cover the rock.

Palmer wasn't crazy about having this sort of debt, so when the same group of buddies proposed a trip to New Jersey's Pine Valley Gold Club, he jumped on the chance to chisel away at his obligations. When they hit the links, Palmer offered the boys this bet: he would get $100 for every stroke he finished under 70. If he played poorly on the notoriously tough course, he would shell out $100 for every stroke he finished over 80. Although he bogeyed the first hole, Palmer repeatedly used this system along with a variety of side bets to wriggle out from under $5,000 in debt in a single weekend.

3. Getting Into the White House is Tougher Than Free Throws

shaq-white-house

A few years ago, NBA star Shaquille O'Neal and a member of his entourage had a fiery debate about whether or not Shaq could just drop by the White House unannounced and be welcomed with open arms. After much back-and-forth, Shaq decided he'd give it a try. If he couldn't get past the gate, he would do 1,000 pushups. If he made it inside, his buddy would have to do the pushups.

Unfortunately for Shaq, even the Big Aristotle needs an appointment to see the President. When O'Neal walked up to the gate, the Secret Service politely but firmly turned him away. He later told the Washington Post's Dan Steinberg that he was working off his debt in increments of 20 to 30 pushups. (Shaq is pictured with the Lakers and President Bush in 2002.)

4. Paul Ehrlich's Population Bomb Doesn't Go Off

Even celebrity scientists have tried their hands at high profile gambling. Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich is famous for his grim predictions concerning overpopulation; he famously predicted in 1968 that 20% of the world's population would starve to death before 1985. As you might expect, these claims were somewhat controversial. When Ehrlich commented in 1980 that he would make an even money bet that England would not exist in the year 2000, economist Julian L. Simon had heard enough. Simon decided to book an unusual bet of his own with Ehrlich.

Since Ehrlich's underlying Malthusian argument involved the depletion of natural resources, Simon made this challenge: Ehrlich could name whatever natural resource he wanted, buy $1,000 worth of it, and pick a time frame. If at the end of the time frame the commodities were worth more than the initial $1,000, Simon would pay Ehrlich the difference. If they were worth less than $1,000, Ehrlich would fork the difference over to Simon. If Ehrlich's predictions about dwindling natural resources came to pass, the prices of commodities would skyrocket and Simon would be out a lot of cash.

Ehrlich was game. He spread his $1,000 evenly among chrome, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten and told Simon to wait 10 years. Although the world's population shot up by 800 million people in the intervening decade, the metals' prices crashed. When the bet ended in 1990, Ehrlich had to cut Simon a check for $576.07.

5. Phil Mickelson Has a Nice 2001

ravens-diamondbacks-mickelson

PGA golfer Phil Mickelson had a hot hand during 2001. Fans might remember that two longshots won titles that year: the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, and the Arizona Diamondbacks knocked off the New York Yankees in a classic World Series. Mickelson was part of betting groups that had picked both squads. Their $20,000 bet on the 28-to-1 Ravens yielded a cool $560,000, and they hit again with $20K on the 38-to-1 Diamondbacks. And to think people used to say Mickelson couldn't get a big win.

6. Ringo Says Don't Bet on a Beatles Reunion

By 1974, legions of fans were clamoring for a Beatles reunion, but Ringo Starr was having none of it. The drummer told London reporters that he had bet a thousand pounds that the Beatles wouldn't play together that year, and that he would be happy to throw a thousand quid down on the group never playing together again.

7. Hollywood Ads Add Up

In 1999, Dreamworks' Saving Private Ryan was locked in a duel with Miramax's Shakespeare in Love for the Academy Award for Best Picture, which set the stage for an unusual bet. Dreamworks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg bet actor Warren Beatty that his rival Miramax would run more ads hyping its film than Dreamworks would. The stakes: a $10,000 donation to the charity of the winner's choice. Beatty won the wager when Dreamworks took out 165 pages of ads versus Miramax's 118, and Katzenberg paid up.

8. Computers Are No Match for Chess Master

Levy-1978

In 1968, Scottish chess champion David Levy attended a conference on artificial intelligence and discussed the future prospects for chess-playing computers. Although Levy was optimistic about the future of chess-playing computers, he thought developing great AI would take a while. After some debate, he bet four professors 1,250 British pounds that nobody would make a computer that could beat him within the next 10 years.

Although it took a while for chess programs to pose a serious threat to him, Levy ended up winning the bet when he defeated the program Chess 4.7 in a six-game match at the 1978 deadline. The man-vs.-machine showdown was such a big deal that even Sports Illustrated covered it.

After his win, Levy put up another $1,000 as a bounty for the first chess program that could beat him in a four- or six-game match. He eventually fell in 1989 to Deep Thought, a precursor to famed chess computer Deep Blue.

Portions of this article originally appeared in early 2010.

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A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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13 Great Jack Nicholson Quotes
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Jack Nicholson turns 81 today. Let's celebrate with some of the actor's wit and wisdom.

1. ON ADVICE

"I hate advice unless I'm giving it. I hate giving advice, because people won't take it."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

2. ON REGRETS

"Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do."

From an interview with The Talks

3. ON DEATH

"I'm Irish. I think about death all the time. Back in the days when I thought of myself as a serious academic writer, I used to think that the only real theme was a fear of death, and that all the other themes were just that same fear, translated into fear of closeness, fear of loneliness, fear of dissolving values. Then I heard old John Huston talking about death. Somebody was quizzing him about the subject, you know, and here he is with the open-heart surgery a few years ago, and the emphysema, but he's bounced back fit as a fiddle, and he's talking about theories of death, and the other fella says, 'Well, great, John, that's great ... but how am I supposed to feel about it when you pass on?' And John says, 'Just treat it as your own.' As for me, I like that line I wrote that, we used in The Border, where I said, 'I just want to do something good before I die.' Isn't that what we all want?"

From an interview with Roger Ebert

4. ON NERVES

''There's a period of time just before you start a movie when you start thinking, I don't know what in the world I'm going to do. It's free-floating anxiety. In my case, though, this is over by lunch the first day of shooting.''

From an interview with The New York Times

5. ON ACTING

"Almost anyone can give a good representative performance when you're unknown. It's just easier. The real pro game of acting is after you're known—to 'un-Jack' that character, in my case, and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific, fictional person."

From an interview with The Age

6. ON MARRIAGE

"I never had a policy about marriage. I got married very young in life and I always think in all relationships, I've always thought that it's counterproductive to have a theory on that. It's hard enough to get to know yourself and as most of you have probably found, once you get to know two people in tandem it's even more difficult. If it's going to be successful, it's going to have to be very specific and real and immediate so the more ideas you have about it before you start, it seems to me the less likely you are to be successful."

From an interview with About.com

7. ON LYING

“You only lie to two people in your life: your girlfriend and the police. Everybody else you tell the truth to.”

From a 1994 interview with Vanity Fair

8. ON HIS SUNGLASSES

"They're prescription. That's why I wear them. A long time ago, the Middle American in me may have thought it was a bit affected maybe. But the light is very strong in southern California. And once you've experienced negative territory in public life, you begin to accept the notion of shields. I am a person who is trained to look other people in the eye. But I can't look into the eyes of everyone who wants to look into mine; I can't emotionally cope with that kind of volume. Sunglasses are part of my armor."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

9. ON MISCONCEPTIONS

"I think people think I'm more physical than I am, I suppose. I'm not really confrontational. Of course, I have a temper, but that's sort of blown out of proportion."

From an interview with ESPN

10. ON DIRECTING

"I'm a different person when suddenly it's my responsibility. I'm not very inhibited in that way. I would show up [on the set of The Two Jakes] one day, and we'd scouted an orange grove and it had been cut down. You're out in the middle of nowhere and they forget to cast an actor. These are the sort of things I kind of like about directing. Of course, at the time you blow your stack a little bit. ... I'm a Roger Corman baby. Just keep rolling, baby. You've got to get something on there. Maybe it's right. Maybe it's wrong. Maybe you can fix it later. Maybe you can't. You can't imagine the things that come up when you're making a movie where you've got to adjust on the spot."

From an interview with MTV

11. ON ROGER CORMAN

"There's nobody in there, that he didn't, in the most important way support. He was my life blood to whatever I thought I was going to be as a person. And I hope he knows that this is not all hot air. I'm going to cry now."

From the documentary Corman's World

12. ON PLAYING THE JOKER

"This would be the character, whose core—while totally determinate of the part—was the least limiting of any I would ever encounter. This is a more literary way of approaching than I might have had as a kid reading the comics, but you have to get specific. ... He's not wired up the same way. This guy has survived nuclear waste immersion here. Even in my own life, people have said, 'There's nothing sacred to you in the area of humor, Jack. Sometimes, Jack, relax with the humor.' This does not apply to the Joker, in fact, just the opposite. Things even the wildest comics might be afraid to find funny: burning somebody's face into oblivion, destroying a masterpiece in a museum—a subject as an art person even made me a little scared. Not this character. And I love that."

From The Making of Batman

13. ON BASKETBALL

"I've always thought basketball was the best sport, although it wasn't the sport I was best at. It was just the most fun to watch. ... Even as a kid it appealed to me. The basketball players were out at night. They had great overcoats. There was this certain nighttime juvenile-delinquent thing about it that got your blood going."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

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