Earlier this week, investing sage Warren Buffett made headlines by predicting Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 presidential election. In fact, he added, he's willing to put some coin behind it. "Hillary’s going to win," said Buffett, speaking at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit. "I will bet money on it. I will. I don’t do that easily."
But that's not quite accurate.
Sure, the Oracle of Omaha has publicly denigrated gambling, including comments to his Berkshire Hathaway shareholders in which he called it a "tax on ignorance" and "socially revolting." And he even bought a 10-cent slot machine in his home to teach his offspring the evils of casinos. "I... put it on the 3rd floor of my house," Buffett explained. "I could then give my children any allowance they wanted, as long as it was in dimes, and I'd have it all back by nightfall. I wanted to teach them a good lesson. My slot machine had a terrible payout ratio, by the way."
But in fact Buffett has a long history of making very public wagers -- and a pretty good track record of winning them. Here are a few of his most famous bets.
$550 on College Football
Earlier this year, Buffett placed his first-ever Las Vegas stake, betting $550 that Nebraska would beat Fresno State by more than 12 1/2 points. The Cornhuskers went on to destroy Fresno, 55 to 19, making Buffett (and other gamblers who rushed to copy him) a healthy return.
$1 Million on Index Funds Beating Hedge Funds
Buffett has consistently recommended index funds as the best investment vehicle for most investors, specifically endorsing Vanguard's funds in a March letter to shareholders. He's so sure indexes are the way to go that he bet $1 million that the S&P would outperform a "fund of funds" portfolio of hedge funds over 10 years, after fees, costs, and expenses are taken into account. An asset management firm called Protege Partners took the other side of the bet. So far, Buffett is on track for a payday: Fortune reports that, after six years, Buffett's horse—Vanguard's Admiral shares—was beating the firm's five funds by more than 30% at the end of 2013.
$30 Million on World Cup Soccer
In a way, gambling of a kind is actually a routine part of Buffett's business—and I'm not talking about his equity investments. One of Berkshire Hathaway's many revenue streams is selling insurance that protects companies in the event that they have to pay out large cash prizes. For example, Bloomberg reports that in 2010 Berkshire insured an Omaha-based business that agreed to pay one of its clients if the French soccer team won the World Cup. If France wins, Buffett explained at the time, “I think we're going to lose 30 million bucks or something like that.” But once again the Oracle of Omaha came out on top: Les Bleu were knocked out by South Africa in the group stage.
$1 Billion on March Madness
Thanks to Buffett, NCAA basketball got a lot more interesting this year. In January, the investor teamed up with Quicken Loans to offer a $1 billion prize to anyone who submitted a perfect March Madness bracket. The odds of Buffet losing? According to math site Orgtheory.net, the likelihood of correctly filling out a 64 team bracket randomly is less than 1 in 9 quintillion. But, because March Madness predictions do involve some level of skill, the true odds are difficult to determine. "There is no perfect math...There are no true odds, no one really knows," Buffett told CNN. That said, he still liked his chances. "I don't want to say it's impossible, but it's basically impossible," admitted Buffett.
Buffett ultimately won his bet, collecting an undisclosed insurance premium from Quicken chairman Dan Gilbert ("Dan says it is too much and I say it's too little," he joked), but it was a close one. In March, ABC News reported that one man, Brad Binder, had in fact filled out a perfect NCAA bracket—he just hadn't entered it into Buffett's contest. "I wish I could give you a better reason why I didn’t enter other than I was rushed and heading to work," Binder told ABC. "Obviously, I didn't think I'd be where I am now."
So is Buffett really a gambler after all? Not so much. Other than the Vegas wager, all of Buffett's other bets gave the Berkshire chairman hugely favorable odds, or involved an industry where his expertise is unmatched. Buffett would probably agree that gambling isn't really so bad -- if you're the house.