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Return with me now to 1851. In London, in a magnificent new building known as the Crystal Palace, the Great Exhibition is underway. One of its features is a revolutionary sort of chess tournament.
"Usually chess players wanted to play matches against each other," says chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley. "If you were going to prove who was the better player you’d take them on one-on-one. You’d play a match."
A Strange, New Format
The chess world hated the innovation, in fact.Maurice Ashley, chess grandmaster
Ashley is well-versed enough about the history of his game to know that the man responsible for that strange, new tournament format was also a chess champion: Howard Staunton.
"He wanted to design this tournament that would show the best player in Europe, possibly even the best player in the world," Ashley says. "And he put them in a format, in a knock-out format, that we’re used to with bracketology."
Perhaps that “knock-out" sort of format rings a bell. It ought to. It’s March. NCAA Basketball Tournament brackets are ripe for filling out. That’s an activity millions of people in this country and elsewhere take for granted, whether they’re involved in $2 office pools or interested in more substantial investment. But Ashley says the very first manifestation of bracketology — the chess version — was not without glitches.
"One of the flaws, the main flaw, in fact, was that there were no seedings," he says. "They played randomly just by drawing straws out of a hat. And so some of the better players ended up facing off against each other early on, which, as we know, is probably the least climactic way to do things."
Nevertheless, those chess players in 1851 enthusiastically embraced the opportunity to be the first competitors arranged by brackets, right?
"The chess world hated the innovation, in fact," Ashley says. "The idea of players getting knocked out was not something that chess appreciated. Even today, chess doesn’t really appreciate it."
Howard Staunton himself made it to the semi-finals of that experiment in 1851. He said he felt he could have been more successful if he hadn’t been burdened with the responsibility of organizing the affair.
And he may have been right. Organizing brackets is challenging. It comes with complications. About a century and a half after that chess tournament in London, the Haggerty family of Staten Island, New York, began learning that.
Jody's Club Forest
Their enterprise started innocently enough in 1977 when Joseph “Jody” Haggerty, proprietor of a restaurant called Jody’s Club Forest, hit on the idea of encouraging his patrons to guess which teams would advance out of each of the four regions in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. They’d each pay $10 for the privilege, and whoever guessed most accurately would take home the money. Terence Haggerty, Jody’s son, runs the club these days. He hadn't yet been born in 1977, but the stories…the stories have been passed down.
"Yeah, every March I see a lot of stories pop up," says Haggerty. "Like, I’ll Google our name. We have no problem speaking about it. It's been so long. And nobody ever really asks us. You know, in the end, it wasn’t the best result, but it was a great 30 years. I’ll tell you that right now."
Like lots of great things, Terrence Haggerty says the competitive filling out of brackets at Jody’s Club Forest began humbly.
"Now, in 1977, they only had, I believe they had 88 entries, and it was $880. It was just really just a Staten Island thing. And over time it grew. It grew. I’d say, mid-90s, maybe that’s when it started getting a little recognition. You know, people as far as California, Hawaii — I remember us getting a call from a family member of a soldier serving in Iraq. They were getting in the pool. The very last year in 2006, the total prize was $1.6 million. This is a true story. In 2006, there were over 160,000 entries."
By 2006, of course, filling out brackets had become a tradition all over the U.S. and beyond. But when the practice began at Jody’s Club Forest, well, as Haggerty puts it:
"We were the only show in town."
In fact, as far as we could determine, they were the only bracket show anywhere. And like shows of all kinds, the one begun by Jody Haggerty had to change with the times.
TH: Probably, I’d say in ’98, ’99, we started getting into computers. We had a computer guy. He had a program for it. We had probably 30 people inputting picks in. We had them in different houses on Staten Island,and, you know, in basements, and it was…interesting.
BL: Was there like a big box under the bar with a million dollars in it, or how did you handle this?
TH: Um, no. The money was in banks, and, you know, it was divvied up here, there, everywhere.
BL: So it wasn’t actually sitting under the cash register?
TH: No, it wasn’t even in the building. It got to the end where the people that were involved that were still alive, you wouldn’t see them, because there was our local newspaper that was always looking for an interview, or the New York Post or Daily News. Guys would basically go into hiding, kind of, and we wouldn’t really see them until, you know, after.
BL: I assume because they didn’t want anybody to know about the windfall?
TH: That’s exactly right. I don’t know if I really want to get into specifics on about like how they were paid, if you can understand what I’m saying. Like, I know it was a long time ago, but it’s something, I know that we’re not 1000% comfortable, you know, talking about. You know what I mean? I hope you understand what I mean.
BL: I think I do, yes, yes. Because ultimately you stopped, and I gather there were tax implications that went into that decision?
TH: Yeah, there were some issues. My father ran into some problems. You know, the IRS came after him, but there was nothing. He had to pay some fines and he was on probation. He didn’t do any, like, jail time or anything, but, you know, he got into a little bit of trouble because it just got too big.
BL: You don’t do it anymore?
TH: We don’t do it anymore. No, we haven’t done it since ’06. They basically told us, 'You can’t do it anymore.' And, you know, in the first couple years, it was rough not doing it. But I think in the long run now, I think we’re all very relieved that it’s over. It’s been a hell of a 40 years, my father would say. Definitely.
Long story short, you can probably still fill out your brackets at a table in Jody’s Club Forest, just as you could do the crossword puzzle there while you’re waiting for your soup or whatever, but there’s no longer any point — or percentage — in handing those brackets to the bartender.
This segment aired on March 12, 2016.