A History of the Farside Pool for the Truly Bored

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I make references to my 20+ year losing streak in this pool or its predecessors. This outlines a brief history of the pool leading up to its current incarnation.

The Early Years: Northwestern Bell, early 1980s

When I was first out of college (B.S., Economics and Industrial Administration (Finance), Iowa State University, 1980) I lived at home for a bit. My parents, both immigrants as adults from England to Canada and then the United States, had taken a fancy to football and we used to watch or listen to games. It's funny looking at some of Dad's slides, he's got photos from 1955 or 1956 of CFL games in Toronto. They look about as modern as pictures of Babe Ruth.

Most of the tv watching in our house in Des Moines took place in what was known as the Tacky Room, a room in the basement equipped with a colour television, a couple of comfy chairs, a 1950s-era dry bar and the detritus of various trips. The ceiling was painted black, festive Christmas lights were hung about and the decorating was a beer can collection, bull horns from Montana, signs Dad stole from a troop train in India in 1945, a Kenyan ceremonial mask and sword one of my great aunts had acquired, a pennant from Dad's Royal Navy aircraft carrier (HMS Vengeance, "I strike, I cover"), a Chinese coolie hat, a model Concorde, a collection of coasters from English pubs, a plastic Eiffel Tower, a ship in a bottle from Maine, and more stuff of that nature. It was a refuge for the things you buy as souvenirs, get home and say, what was I thinking? Into the Tacky Room! Really the highlight of the room, though, one which really set the tone, was a fake fireplace, a sheet-metal thing that had molded plastic translucent "logs" behind which a light bulb reflected off a rotating cylinder of crumpled aluminum foil to simulate glowing coals, a great effect except that the cylinder squeaked ever so slightly (squeak........squeak........squeak) as it went around. This unit had a heating element and fan, too, so it could emit some heat albeit it smelled more like a squeaky overheating toaster than a crackling oak log. In a house of otherwise modest refinement, the Tacky Room was in exuberantly poor taste and made a great location for football watching.

Mom had a friend who worked at Northwestern Bell (later US West, later Qwest, now CenturyLink) where they ran a pool just like the current Farside Pool. It had a pile of people in it, sixty maybe, and it was run and the results were calculated entirely by hand. I joined this pool although I can't remember exactly when, 1980 or 1981 I think. My parents had a knack for this sort of thing and I think one year Cole family members won five times in one season, shared among my Mom and Dad and maybe even my sister Ann (now Ann Kendell, and also in the Farside pool). I didn't win any. I was in the process of learning Visicalc on an Apple IIe and then Lotus 1-2-3 on the original PC and thought, you know, that football pool would be a good application for these here newfangled spreadsheets.

Matt does the College Bowls in Lotus

I didn't initially do a pro pool, instead building the pool spreadsheet to do the College Bowls. In those days, these bowls (16 or 17, there were always a couple of marginal ones coming and going, there are now around 32) would play out from about December 5th to New Years Day. December 5th or thereabouts was the California Bowl, the Peach and Copper and Bluebonnet Bowls and their ilk would run from December 20th to the 31st and then the big ones, Cotton, Orange, Rose etc. would happen on New Years Day. This allowed the pool scoring to run over a protracted period of time and from that arose the Points Blown and Maximum Potential Score figures which I still calculate although they are not reported nor really that useful on a weekly basis. The College Pool cost $5 and is where I first came up with the 50/30/20 end-of-season split (the Northwestern Bell pool didn't have a season-end pot).

Matt Moves up to the Pros

I ran the College Bowl Pool for a couple of years while continuing to participate and lose in the Northwestern Bell professional pool. At some point, I began doing my own pro pool. This would be around 1987/88 and I wrote it in Lotus 1-2-3, adapted from my college pool. Longtime spreadsheet enthusiasts might remember the Allways printing program for 1-2-3 which allowed utterly amazing things like Landscape printing. It was invoked as an Add On and I had long Lotus macros for printing which included activating Allways. It's astonishing how lame computers were then. I ran this pool through the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This was the time that firmly fixed the pool in my consciousness. E mail was very uncommon and entries came on paper. I would go to my parent's house on Tuesday evenings with the results of the prior week and the new entry form and sit and talk with my Mom. Dad was usually off at choir practice. Mom had had an episode of breast cancer in 1988 and it recurred in 1991. That football season I was over every Tuesday and we had nice long talks and watched "In the Heat of the Night" with the sound way down and I usually had a small whiskey ("a snort") and did the pool thing. Neither of us knew, at least I didn't, that the end was near, and around Christmas Mom went into hospital. Her bones had become brittle and she broke an arm, the cancer had spread, and she was in considerable pain. She didn't come back out of hospital. On January 21, 1992, Henry was born, a month early but in good shape, Karla's and my first child on a day when the doctors didn't think Mom would live through the night. I took tiny red-headed Henry out of hospital the next day to show him to my Mom over in a different hospital before she died. The immediate crisis passed, she lived nearly another two months and then died March 15. Her last month was in a virtual coma and Henry's early arrival meant she was awake and alert and able to see him quite a bit. Mom had red hair; I do as well, that which I have left anyway, and Henry, now as tall as I am and a junior in college, had (and has) a gorgeous head of red hair too. Mom got to see this connection and to admire my lovely little baby boy. Had Henry been full term, she would have been mostly unconscious of all this. It was a really conflicted time with our healthy baby after a tumultuous pregnancy, a source of great joy, and Mom's decline and death at 62, a source of wrenching sadness.

In view of the subsequent events, the pool visits from the 1991 football season seemed a golden time, unhurried chats and conversation each week in a pool including Mom, Dad, my wife, one sister and a circle of friends. I associate the pool with good natured competition, with an intergenerational family activity, with an ongoing interest in a sport at a level above the randomness of scoreboards and below the obsessiveness of fantasy football. Football watching as a family activity retains a warm glow of nostalgia from the days of Sunday tea in the Tacky Room, Monday Nights while Mom ironed and Dad and I read (and where I heard of John Lennon's death from Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football), through the middle years of learning PCs and automating the pool, to the pivotal point of the season prior to Mom's death, to the new city (we moved to Saint Paul in 1994) and jobs and friends and now my childrens' interest and occasional success in the pool. For me there is a long continuum to this which keeps me more attached to the pro football game than I otherwise might be.

Matt Moves to the Twin Cities

A week after Mom died I started a new job, one which lasted 19 months and involved an insane amount of work. I can't recall now whether I ran or even participated in the pool those two years, which is why I'm a bit vague about exactly how many seasons of futility I have enjoyed. I left that job in October 1993, less than two weeks after my daughter Geneva was born. I was unemployed for five months, a period which ended when we moved to Saint Paul and I went to work for Hercules International Management, a Piper Jaffray joint venture running international mutual funds. This was a great job in a flawed organization but they had a Farside-style pool! I participated in the 1994 and 1995 seasons in their pool, never winning, but for reasons too complicated to go into here left there after helping break up the joint venture in late 1995. Piper Capital and Piper Jaffray had many issues; it was illustrative of the types of systems problems they had that Piper's pool was still run by hand a decade after I'd first automated my college bowl pools.

Matt Writes the Current Incarnation of the Pool

I spent 1996 working for a Document Custody Operation for Norwest (now Wells Fargo) Bank. I was a contract employee (aka a "stinking temp") though kind of a managerial temp, as I had a staff of 16 people and was running the project and reporting to Norwest personnel. It was a year-long engagement doing a reconciliation of documents held in this operation with their computer system. There were many challenges involved with this, one of which was staff turnover since all my staff were stinking temps too, and they came and went, guaranteeing a constant training cycle, but there were lulls, especially during a few excruciating weeks during the summer when Norwest moved the server downtown and tried operating 25 computers remotely over a single dial-up 56.6k phone line, the same slow speed as I had at home (incidentally, this sort of extremely slow response to any keyboard input, a response measure in minutes, is one of the lesser-known circles of hell). I had learnt Excel at Hercules writing SEC-compliant mutual fund performance spreadsheets and that summer set my staff to doing some horrendously tedious work while Norwest struggled to extract their IT head out of their corporate ass and hook up a fast connection while I decided to look busy by supervising my group and writing a new pool spreadsheet using all this newfound Excel knowledge. My Lotus spreadsheet with all its Allways calls etc. would not gracefully import so I started with a blank worksheet and built it from blank-page scratch. The Norwest operation was (and still is) housed in a light industrial building on East Hennepin which at the time was set up in a very ad hoc manner and my project was housed in a distant room known as the Farside Room. That's where the pool name came from. I've never seen fit to change it.

The current incarnation of the Farside pool kicked off that fall. Now I make everyone pay up front for the whole season; then it was week to week because none of the stinking temps knew if they'd be around each week. I'd collect dollar bills from all the participants each week. Entries were on printed forms because nobody had Excel except a priveged few, so I hand-entered everyone's picks. Results were printed out and posted for all to see. We had 30-40 entrants each week of whom Paul Meillier is the last remaining non-family participant. During this time I developed the Market entry to show the overall picks. The current spreadsheet to run the pool is a direct descendent of this 1996 one.

Matt Moves to MSI

At the very end of 1996 (December 30, to be exact) I started at MSI Insurance (now COUNTRY Financial). The next football season I went around and invited a bunch of MSI people to join. For a couple of awkward years I ran it partly by email (for people outside MSI) and partly off the MSI network where people within the company could go to a shared hard drive and get the files directly. I wasn't altogether comfortable running it on company time and so evolved to a full email/Excel attachment method run by email and in 1999 or 2000 went to the PDF files for reporting and added the website. For the 2002 season I added the online entry form in a sudden flash of programming effort in conjunction with a friend from Colorado who did the underlying cgi script. Both the online form and Excel files are quick and accurate compared to me hand-entering the choices. I subsequently added macros to the Excel that automatically generate the html forms, participant rankings and potential outcome files for the website. The PDF files give me an easy way of reporting the results out and posting them on the website. Various macros to automate the dreary clerical tasks have reduced the workload and made the pool pretty simple to run though I often end up staying up late on Monday nights.

The pool has gotten bigger, moving to 51 participants which is where I have capped it. There are no advantages to getting bigger, it's just more work for me and worse chances for all of us and 51 people is a comfortable size to deal with (and there are 17 weeks in the regular season, and 17 X 3 = 51, giving a 1 in 3 chance of winning if it assumed that the wins are random). The file has gotten more complicated. Just for fun, I calculate not only the market entry but look at whose entry is closest to the Market (this is not reported on the scoresheet). I have used a growing knowledge of Excel macros to automate the mundane weekly tasks and in 2002 moved the main Farside web page to a SSI (Server Side Includes) format which will pull in several fields of data from text files to keep the page up to date (things like the hyperlinks to the results and entry files). These little text files, the results, the prospective weekly entry files, all that stuff is done in macros where it had previously been a checklist of manual tasks. I also added the online entry which makes pasting the entries into the spreadsheet even simpler. I still manually enter the full season schedule at the beginning of the year (usually in mid to late July while watching the Tour de France) and have to put in the game scores by hand, but most of the other work is now automated.

Matt Looks At Recent History

In an effort to make room for more people, in 2005 I added the High Stakes Pool, an identical setup but for five times the price. This had just 12 people in it that first season and dropped to 11 for 2006. In 2007, I dropped the cost to $2 a week for the High Stakes and it drew some more participants and now runs close to full. Even without that one, the pool has a number of people in it I've never even met. Paul Vigiaturo, Neeraj Udeshi and all of Rom's chums out in Seattle, for example, are friends of Farside participants I know directly. My wife, Karla, whom I met through a personal ad which said she liked "classical music and football", and my sister Ann Kendell are long-term participants and both have won weeks in recent years. My son Henry, born in that emotional winter of 1991/92, has been a consistent winner ever since winning his third week participating, at the age of 8, and my daughter Geneva won a week her first full season. My father was a participant through the 2007 season before he died in July 2008. I finally, after a couple of decades of futility, won a week in the Family Pool. Just a couple of seasons ago I lost one on the tiebreaker (not for the first time, either!). As mentioned above, I can't recall exactly which year I started doing this, I can't remember if I've done every year along the way, but basically I've been participating in or running a pool like this since about 1981 and didn't win a single stinking week for more than 20 years.

Here's to another year! Good luck and have fun!

Matthew "The Commissioner" Cole