The chimera of the unwinnable wager dazzles the imaginations of those in the habit of making proposition bets. To gamblers, a sure thing is manna from heaven in the form of a guaranteed wallet fattener and a promise of the fun to be had in putting one over on others. When an unwinnable challenge is in play, the person wagering on the right side of the “prop” gets the pleasure of laughing up his sleeve at those he has duped.
Unwinnable bets are charming. And enthralling. Which is why folks seek after them like modern day Holy Grails.
For the past 150+ years, one fabled “unwinnable” bet has to do with the purported impossibility of eating quail daily for any appreciable length of time. Popular wisdom dictates that too much of a good thing will prove indigestible to those who overdo it, thus a thirty-day stretch of having to chow down on one of these tiny, mild-flavored game birds every day for a month will turn out to be more than even the most committed gourmand can handle.
This belief appears to have started with the biblical account of the Israelites’ travels through the desert. According to
By the 1870s, the fowl wager was accepted as gospel, as this statement made by the New York Times on
During the 1870s and 1880s, numerous attempts at the quail-eating feat were chronicled by the popular press. In 1876, the Atlanta Constitution reported on the fowl-crunching efforts of Marcellus Thornton of that town, with Thornton proclaiming that not only would he succeed but that he’d “go on to eat one each day as long as anybody will pay for them.” The Chicago Daily Tribune reported in 1877 on Captain Moss, who at the halfway point of the bet was offering to continue on for an additional thirty days and step up the wager by eating two quail a day. In 1883, John Walcott succeeded in eating two of the birds a day for thirty days on a bet of $500. In 1887,
The “sure thing” that never was continues to trap the incautious even though a century and a half has passed since the earliest sightings of the craze. After hearing the tale from poker legend Doyle (“Texas Dolly”) Brunson during a $100,000 cash game televised on Poker After Dark in
Yet the best story about this bet features not Texas Dolly, but another legendary poker player, Amarillo Slim. According to his autobiography (which, it must be remembered, was written by a poker player, a species of critter known to succeed best when resolutely holding the truth at arm’s length), Slim was asked by casino owner Benny Binion to work up a way that someone could beat the “quail a day for