In 'The Rookie Bookie,' Math, Sports Betting And Middle School Collide

Download Audio

In “The Rookie Bookie,” seventh-grader Mitch Sloan decides to put his knack for numbers and marketing to good use — by taking bets. The book features math, sports, and the popularity roller coaster that is middle school.

Sports Illustrated executive editor Jon Wertheim co-authored The Rookie Bookie with Tobias Moskowitz. Wertheim joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game to discuss the new book.

(And don't miss Wertheim flipping the script on Bill. He took over the microphone and interviewed Bill about his new book of sports poetry for children, Take Me Out. Check out that conversation here.)

Highlights from Bill's Interview with Jon Wertheim

BL: The Rookie Bookie himself, Mitch Sloan**, comes up with a scheme to allow his classmates to bet on NFL games. Like bookmakers in Las Vegas, he has to book an equal number of bets on both teams playing, so he can’t lose money, no matter who wins. This plot element enables you to teach young readers a good deal about math, right?

'The Rookie Bookie' JW: That was the goal, anyway. Our last book was "Scorecasting," which was sort of behavioral economics for adults, and it occurred to us that there weren't a lot of concepts here that were beyond the realm of middle-schoolers. Why not try this and teach some math and probability and behavioral economics to a younger cohort? And that's what we tried to do, wrapping it in this sports story.

BL: There are also geography lessons in this book, because Mitch is forced by his parents to memorize capital cities. And then there are lessons in salesmanship, because Mitch has to teach his parents how to sell the art that they make. But it all fits into the story. Would it be wrong to characterize the pedagogy in this novel as sneaky?

JW: I'll cop to sneaky. I might try to plead that a little bit, but I will cop to sneaky. It's funny, the state capitals was actually sort of an inside joke. Toby and I marvel that kids are taught very little in terms of financial literacy. The presidents' birth dates and state capitals, that they get. But supply and demand and some basic, "don't spend more than you earn," that tends to get overlooked. The state capitals was sort of an inside joke, I'm glad you picked up on that.

BL: Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Mitch gets caught and he ends up using his analytics skills for another goal: he helps the football team. So taking suckers’ bets is wrong, but taking advantage of an opponent because you know more than he does is okay. Have I got that pretty much right?

JW: That's "Moneyball" in a nutshell, but you got it. Selective morality.

BL: [Laughing] Are you at all worried that despite all the potential learning lessons in The Rookie Bookie, that parents and school librarians might want keep it away from young readers because it could also teach them how to become a bookie?

JW: We were told that when we did these kids' books, that they couldn't be all unicorns and rainbows, and we needed some lesson and something sort of subversive. We came up with, figuring all these kids that do fantasy leagues, and it's middle school, we thought sports wagering might be a way to do that. We were sort of following the kids' book blueprint. We'll see if this is taboo in libraries.

**Analytics lovers take note: Mitch Sloan's name is an inside joke.

Bill's Thoughts on The Rookie Bookie

The Rookie Bookie is for "young readers." I do not fit into that category.

However, I think the book is terrific. The story moves quickly, the plot is great fun, and the rendering of life in middle school feels authentic. Mitch Sloan* and his partner in crime, Jamie Spielberger (upon whom Mitch insists he does not have a crush) figure out what bookmakers in Las Vegas wish gamblers didn't know: no matter which teams prevail, the careful and clever bookmaker wins.

[sidebar title="An Excerpt From 'The Rookie Bookie'" width="630" align="right"]Read an excerpt from The Rookie Bookie by Jon Wertheim and Tobias Moskowitz.[/sidebar]If the adults in The Rookie Bookie seem even a little less clued-in than adults generally seem to adolescents in the real world, so what? It's a young readers' book. The adults are bound to be kind of dumb and very much in need of the sort of smarts middle-schoolers — or at least one especially canny middle-schooler named Mitch — can provide.

Young readers will love this book, and it's one parents can read with pleasure and discuss with their kids.

This segment aired on November 1, 2014.

Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



More from Only A Game

Listen Live