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John Lundberg

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Behind the Betting on the Nobel Prize for Literature

Posted: 10/ 9/2011 2:09 pm

A person can bet on just about anything in the UK. A few clicks on the website Ladbrokes and you've laid a few pounds on a volleyball game, a few more on the UK version on X Factor, and, if you aren't careful, you've bet last week's paycheck on who will be the 2011 BBC sports personality of the year. For the last seven years, gamblers have also been able to bet on something a little more high culture: the next winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The Nobel committee never releases its list of writers under consideration. So how does a website specializing in sports gambling determine -- from an increasingly global pool -- reasonable odds for winning the Nobel Prize? Well, they have a "literature guy," of course. A spokesman for Ladbrokes recently explained the process to Time Magazine:

We have an in-house expert who uses lots of things on the internet -- forums and social media -- and who is quite a big literature fanatic himself, and he puts the list together. Then he puts the odds together based firstly on who he thinks has a chance and secondly on who represents the current thinking of the panel and wider world.

That one well-read oddsmaker has to take into account far more than just a writer's fame and body of work. He must consider a writer's age (the Academy prefers to honor older writers), gender (the Academy has made statements acknowledging that is hasn't honored enough women), as well as whether the writer's name has been floated previously for the award. He also has to consider where a writer is from, as the Academy has made a point in recent years to think more globally. Last year's winner, Mario Vargas Llosa, was the first South American to win the award since 1982. This year, many betters thought an Asian writer was due for a win, as the Academy has never awarded the prize to a writer from that continent. And it made sense that the Academy might choose to acknowledge the year of revolutions in the Middle East.

Seem a bit confusing? The Guardian's Books Blog offered a more straightforward formula:

Think of a writer, any writer. Add the number of times their work has been banned, censored or offended the moral majority, then multiply by the size of their international reputation. Divide the result by their present state of health plus the average age of the worthies at the Swedish Academy and hey presto! You've got the winner of this year's Nobel prize for literature.

How did the odds for this year's contenders stack up? Here's how the betting stood at Ladbrokes as of September 29th:

Adonis, Syria (4-1)
Tomas Tranströmer, Sweden (9-2)
Péter Nádas, Hungary (10-1)
Assia Djebar, Algeria (12-1)
Thomas Pynchon, USA (12-1)
Ko Un, South Korea (14-1)
Haruki Murakami, Japan (16-1)
Les Murray, Australia (16-1)
Mircea Cărtărescu, Romania (20-1)

Of course, once betting opens, actual gambling drives the numbers. This year, late speculation had it that Bob Dylan (whose odds Ladbrokes initially set at 100-1) would win the prize. Over one remarkable 12-hour period last week, four out of every five bets went for Dylan, rocketing his odds of winning up to 5-1 and putting him as the favorite. The site also took note of bets coming out of Sweden, from people who might be (*cough*) "better informed." Shortly before the prize was announced, Ladbrokes told the press:

Everything now points to Dylan taking the prize. At first we had him down as a rank outsider but the committee have been known to spring a shock and punters the world over feel Dylan will be the beneficiary.

In the end, however, the Academy chose Tomas Tranströmer. He was another favorite, and his selection made the instincts of the betting public look quite good. Not that it always is: last year's winner, Llosa, didn't rank in the public's top twenty.

How does the Academy feel about all this betting action surrounding the world's most prestigious prize? Their secretary, Peter Englund, told the AP that people should ignore the betting agencies, as their speculation can be "completely crazy." Perhaps. But I think its safe to say that many of those betting on the Nobel would fall into the same category.