Bar Bet

A bar bet is a wager between patrons at a drinking establishment. It is widely believed that the creation of Scientology was the result of a bar bet between science fiction authors L. Ron Hubbard and Robert A. Heinlein. One night over bridge (which they played regularly, with generous libations) Hubbard bet Heinlein $1 that he could create a better sci-fi religion.

Heinlein eventually conceded the bet, admitting the ‘Church of All Worlds’ from his 1961 novel ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’ was inferior to Hubbard’s ‘Scientology’, which by then had a strong following. There is no supporting evidence for the story, but several of Heinlein’s autobiographical pieces, as well as biographical pieces written by his wife, claim repeatedly that the bet did indeed occur.

The annual ‘Midnight Sun’ baseball game played in Fairbanks, Alaska (the only game to be contested after midnight without the use of artificial lighting) was established in 1906 as the result of a bar bet. The film ‘To Have and Have Not’ is supposedly the result of bar bet between Ernest Hemingway and director Howard Hawks. Hemingway bet Hawks that he couldn’t make a good film from Hemingway’s worst novel.

Under contract law, bar bets may or may not be legally binding, and the winning party may have difficulty having a court enforce the bet. A written contract, drawn up soberly the next day and signed by both parties, can avoid doubt. For example, if one or both parties are intoxicated when the bet is made, they may be found to lack capacity to agree to a contract, and the contract thus found void or voidable. However, the fact that the agreement is oral but not written does not undermine it: oral contracts are valid, though certain contracts must be written, under the statute of frauds.

In the UK in particular, bar bets are tricks which the ‘mark’ cannot win. They usually depend upon a condition set in the bet that the mark doesn’t notice. Some famous examples: The mark is told that a coin of a particular denomination has been made so it cannot be laid on its edge. The trickster offers him a sum of money for any the mark can lay on edge. When the mark succeeds, the trickster grabs the coin and rewards him with the promised sum – which is always less than the value of the grabbed coin.

Or, a darts player is bet by the trickster that he will lose a game, even though offered many advantages, one of which is always that the mark’s scores will be doubled. Only when close to finishing does the mark realise that because he started from an odd number (say, 201) he cannot finish on a double (as is traditional in darts) because he always has an odd score as a target. The trickster can continue to play from, say, 1001, but is bound to win eventually.

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