Obama goes all chalk

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Or was it just mostly chalk? Did he not stray too far from chalk, or did he go with the chalk all the way?

Opinions on this subject were all over the news today. But what did it mean? Were they talking about our president's sometimes-professorial demeanor? Was he pale with rage at the AIG bonuses?

Those of you know who know the lingo of sports betting will recognize that the issue was the president's tendency to go with the favorites in filling out his picks for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. (In another example of emergent technical terminology, a completed set of tournament picks is known as a "bracket", and all over the country, people are filling out their brackets and submitting them to office betting pools or various higher-stakes entities. You can fill out your own bracket interactively at the New York Times in order to win an Amazon Kindle, for example.)

The Staten Island Advance headlined its (AP) story "All chalk on Obama's tourney bracket". But Newsday's hed was "Barack Obama goes mostly chalk with NCAA bracket". Dan Shanoff in the WSJ's Daily Fix says that "President Obama didn’t stray too much from the chalk with most of his picks", and specifically "went with the chalk all the way" in the Midwest — "not a single upset". Shanoff's comment:

Audacity of upsets: None. (With all due respect, Mr. President: Boo!)

A bit of poking around on the web turns up some of the expected Runyonesque combinations (these are not commenting on the presidential bracket, and the last one is not even about basketball):

When in doubt, go chalk city.
West Virginia is a chalk-buster.
Lawyer Ron won the Rebel, but none of my other chalk locks won.

Meanwhile, the president's first pick (Alabama State over Morehead State in the play-in) turned out to be wrong — but that was one of the cases where he strayed a bit from the chalk, since Morehead was favored by 3 points. Perhaps he was swayed by the unusual name of Alabama State's center, Grlenntys Chief Kickingstallionsims Jr., the only 7'1" Navajo in the tournament.

The president's NCAA bracket fulfills a campaign promise. He filled it out for ESPN's SportsCenter show, where Andy Katz is a basketball analyst:

Katz interviewed Obama last October for a story about the president's brother-in-law, Oregon State basketball coach Craig Robinson. After the interview, Obama invited Katz to play in a pickup basketball game on Election Day in Chicago, and he did.

Katz extracted a promise from Obama that if elected, the new president would reveal his NCAA picks to ESPN when the pairings were announced in March.

"They stayed true to their word and didn't hesitate to get it done," Katz said.

Obama's approval rating remains high with Katz:

"It was an educated bracket," Katz said. "He knew what he was doing. It wasn't some random kind of pick. There were no political favors or anything like that."

That's a relief. The last thing we need right now is Ken Starr looking into allegations of campaign contributions traded for NCAA bracket choices.


  1. Kris Rhodes said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 8:52 am

    Funny thing is, this illustrates some of the things about Obama that make me glad to have voted for him.

    Everyone wanted drama and bold claims, and instead he made the picks dictated by a cool-headed assessment of the probabilities.

  2. Paul said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 10:24 am

    Now we're getting a balance in cross-Atlantic headline interpretation problems, even if it's lexical rather than syntactic this time. Speaking as a Brit, "All chalk on Obama's tourney bracket" would have been completely impenetrable for me had it not been for this post. I've heard of Obama and, being a linguist, I have some idea of the meaning of "all" and "on", but the rest …! :-)

    Now, had you said: "Obama tourney chalk bracket row"…

  3. rpsms said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    If he didn't go all chalk, and people lined up behind him and then lost tons of money, what then?

  4. Jon Weinberg said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 11:52 am

    Ah, but Nate Silver reports that Obama wasn't all chalk: He tended to favor teams from swing states over those from less-contested ones (significant, in Nate's analysis, at the 90% threshold).

  5. Kenny Easwaran said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    Didn't Nate Silver also say that Obama's picks matched the ones that his simulation came up with? Or maybe I misunderstood something, and he only meant that the set of teams most likely to make the final four according to his simulation are the ones that Obama picked for the final four, but that individual wins and losses may have been different.

    Also, I'm very confused about the semantics of the terms "west", "east", "midwest" and "south" as they apparently seem to be applied to this tournament. Why would anything think Connecticut is in the west while UCLA is in the east?

  6. John Cowan said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    Paul: you're a Brit, but are you English? If so, what do you make of that old Edinburgh request, "Please uplift your messages outwith the store"?

  7. Paul said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 2:17 pm

    I am English, yes, but I can interpret that Edinburgh request (and occasionally use "outwith" myself). Mind you, I was once taken aback in Edinburgh when someone asked me: "is that you?" Got it eventually, though.

  8. Paul Wilkins said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 2:24 pm

    LOL – the bracket regional designations refer to where the regional games are played (regional semi finals and finals), i.e. South in Memphis, West in Glendale (Cullyfawnee-ah, that is). The teams are invited to play in the regional brackets wthout prejudice as to where they're from.

    The funny thing about chalk is that it also refers to strategy, as in chalk talk. It is also a metaphor in many cases, because generally, when folks engage in chalk talk, they do not have a chalkboard with them. What's more, I think dry-erase has become the preferred medium. But dry-erase talk just doesn't have the same ring…

    Bracketology of the day!

  9. Walter Underwood said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    Betting jargon may be especially local and odd, perhaps because some of it was intentionally obscure to avoid the attention of the police. I was mystified by Australian headlines about "footy tipping".

  10. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 2:47 pm

    Now I'm curious — Paul, what did "Is that you?" mean in context?

  11. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 3:13 pm

    Re Grlenntys Chief Kickingstallionsims Jr.:

    His name also appears on various sites as Grlenntya rather than Grlenntys. A Birmingham News article from last year has this:

    "I get my name from my dad, the Native American side of the family.
    People do ask me about it all the time, they question the origin of it
    and I just tell them what I know about it."
    Chief is not a nickname, but is actually Kickingstallionsims ' middle name.
    His first name, Grlenntya, means "strength of falling rock," he said.
    "My middle name is after my grandpa," he said. "He always looked at me
    as a leader."
    ("Alabama State center Chief Kickingstallionsims wants to make big
    name for himself," January 19, 2008)

    Any Navajo experts know of the plausibility of Grlenntya or Grlenntys as a given name? And how about that "strength of falling rock" gloss?

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

    Question for everyone, Navajo-speaking or otherwise: where (and when and how) does the association of "chalk" with "favorite" come from?

  13. Paul said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    As far as I recall, "is that you?" means something like "have you finished?", or "is that all you want?". I'm quite likely to be wrong: Language Log writers resident in Edinburgh will no doubt know better than me.

  14. rootlesscosmo said,

    March 19, 2009 @ 9:38 pm

    My understanding of "chalk" is that it originated in British horse racing, where bookmakers on the racetrack grounds (rather than the track operators) quoted odds before each race; since the odds tend to change as more or less is bet on each entrant, they displayed blackboards on which they could erase one quote and chalk in another, and "chalk players" bet, not according to their own estimate of the outcome, but by following the plurality choice as reflected in the lowest odds.

  15. Jason Green said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 11:00 am

    I think the Glendale in question is in Arizona.

  16. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    March 20, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    @rootlesscosmo: That's my understanding as well. A strong metonymic association grew between "chalk" and bookmakers' odds around the turn of the twentieth century. Here's one telling early citation:

    1907 Washington Post 27 Apr. 9/5 Chalk scares many a turf speculator. Let him pick a horse to win, and if he thinks he ought to be the favorite and the bookies lay a big price against him, nine times out of ten the horse won't be played.

  17. Sili said,

    March 21, 2009 @ 11:25 am

    So he's all chalk and no cheese?

    [(myl) Well, there's some balance in the cheese direction, apparently.]

  18. T from Edinburgh said,

    March 21, 2009 @ 3:48 pm

    "Is that you" generally means "is that you" [done/finished].

    For example, if you were in a chippie and asked for a fish supper with salt and sauce (there's one for you to figure out!!) the chippie may serve up your supper and then say "is that you?". To which you may reply "yes, here's my 2.50" or "no, I'd like a tin of irn bru".

  19. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    March 23, 2009 @ 1:09 am

    I explore the chalk metonym in my latest Word Routes column.

  20. Ken Grabach said,

    March 23, 2009 @ 11:17 am

    My understanding of the usage of 'bracket' in context of basketball tournaments is that it is plural, eg. 'Have you completed your brackets?', meaning have you made your selections. There are four brackets. It is very similar to the Groups in the first round of FIFA World Cup finals, except that more teams comprise a Bracket (16, 17 for one of them) than are in a Group (4).

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