Wanna Bet?

Couple hundred says you don’t know why it’s called a Calcutta
Gambling has always been part of golf, and the Calcutta might be its most lucrative pool. Photo: Underwood Archives/Getty Images

Vices tend to be prolific in the linguistics department. A venerable pastime such as gambling lends such colorful phrases as rolling snake eyes, upping the ante, going double or nothing, hitting the jackpot and many more. For better and sometimes worse, the seedy world of betting and the more respectable game of golf have always overlapped. This volatile combination has emptied and filled pockets for centuries and formed its own memorable vernacular, including the famed Calcutta.

PGA.com defines a Calcutta—also called a Calcutta auction, Calcutta sweepstakes or Calcutta wager—as “an auction in which people bid on players or teams in a tournament.” Most golfers, amateur or pro, are familiar with the concept, in which each player bets on another player or team to go low (or sometimes high). With the amount of players involved in these events, it is no surprise that Calcuttas have gained notoriety for having some of the game’s largest pots.

A 1935 article from the Los Angeles Times gives a sense of the Calcutta’s place in golf: “Calcutta pools, conducted under the noses of pro and amateur golf officials, have often drawn thousands of dollars and yet there is no squawk by the competitors, even though some friend may shell out $1000 to ‘buy’ a red-hot player in the tournament.”

But while most players know what a Calcutta is, the great majority would be hard-pressed to name the term’s origin.

Surprisingly, the Calcutta is not recorded in the most historically focused English-language dictionaries—the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster—but it hasn’t escaped the notice of word experts. On “A Way With Words,” the word-focused public radio show hosted by lexicographer Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, the Calcutta was discussed in 2013. A caller named Sadie from Charlottesville, Virginia, who was dating a professional golfer, wondered, “Why is it called a Calcutta, of all things?”

Barrett described the Calcutta as a “200-plus-year-old type of wagering that the British brought back from the subcontinent, from India. And it was apparently practiced at a well-known [golf] club in Calcutta. The British brought it back and spread it to the Anglophone world.”

It’s also spread to other games. While the Calcutta might be best known in golf, it also exists in backgammon, billiards, bridge, dog racing, fishing, horse racing and even the NCAA Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. 

But Calcuttas and other games of that ilk are not universally beloved, especially by those who believe golf is above such things. A 1955 article in The New York Times discussed the pernicious influence of gambling on professional golf, and Joseph C. Dey Jr., then executive director of the United States Golf Association (and future commissioner of the PGA Tour), vowed to help “stamp out” gambling among golfers, and that included “Calcutta pools.” Even today, due to the size of the pots, participation in a Calcutta can even be risky for a golfer’s amateur status, as golf journalist Brent Kelley warned in a recent ThoughtCo article.

Of course, gambling is as much a part of the game as pushcarts and pitch marks. The real issue is not whether Calcuttas are good for golf; it’s whether you know your game and the room well enough to make a smart bet when the time comes. 

Mark Peters is a columnist for McSweeney’s, a professional etymologist and a comedian. His latest book is Bullshit: A Lexicon.