Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, April 21

Gapers Block

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Gambling is a terrible vice. What people don't realize about gambling is that it isn't a compulsive behavior like being late for work because you can't stop reading a particularly engrossing article on your favorite local news magazine website, or drinking those hazelnut Starbucks frappuccinos for dessert every night for two weeks. It has all the features of a drug. Those who study it say the attractive feature of it is exactly what the attractive feature of some narcotics, or alcohol, is: it makes whatever activity you're doing much more interesting. Watching a Cubs game at Wrigley Field may be fun, but how much more fun would it be after three beers? Or, in the case of White Sox fans like myself, eight? Similarly, playing a hand of cards or watching the San Diego Chargers play the Cincinnati Bengals may be fun, but they're remarkably more fun when you've got $200 waiting for you if the Chargers can win by more than a field goal.

Bookies, at least bookies in Chicago, have come to realize this fact. This is why it isn't necessarily physically dangerous to gamble with a bookie like it was 10 or 15 years ago. Because they realize that although breaking a gamblers hand hurts them, cutting them off from any future action is infinitely worse.

When I lost my job two years ago, I had enough money to survive on for a few months. Deep in the unconscionable morass of three majors, two of which required at least 600 pages of reading a week minimum, I decided I didn't have the time for a another full-time job. I had to make my money work for me. Having absolutely no money and nothing near the resources to play the stock market -— not to mention a complete abhorrence of anything involving those two words -- I decided to focus on sports betting. At the risk of disqualifying myself from any future jobs in public office, I delved as deep into sports betting as somebody with no connections and little knowledge could go. What you find, in the end, is a very large, very disparate group of very desperate people with nothing in their lives but lines, lays, tips, and vacuous friendships.

At a small tap in the Fulton Street Market neighborhood, there was always some-or-other kind of betting. My specialty, as with most people, was football. I stumbled across these guys completely by accident while reading a Sun-Times and having a sandwich. A fat guy with a trim mustache and various labor union paraphernalia asked me what the line on the Dolphins game was. I told him six, and he said he'd take that action. I advised him against it, for various boring football reasons of little interest to you, here. He called me on it, and we placed a bet. I won. Eventually a little cabal formed, with myself the youngest by about 20 years.

I expanded my little project into the on-line sports books, using a series of about five or six to lay off bets. Laying-off is a procedure developed by European horse-race betting houses wherein the taker of bets hedges against iffy bets by betting a similar sum on a sure thing -- sometimes with disadvantageous pay-out odds -- with a larger betting house. Of course, the Europeans had the added advantage of some mysterious machine which could compute odds, based on the number of bettors, instantaneously. Crazy Europeans with their gadgets.

I had a magnificent streak of luck. My picks each week were succeeding at a 67 percent rate, which had no little part in endearing me to my new friends, who decided to bet with me. In the interest of observing any sort of statute of limitations, I'll say this: I was more popular in more places across the city than I had ever imagined possible. And the bookies that sat at the end of bars began conferring with me, occasionally giving me tips on horses. Apparently, the owners of several stables hung out at bars in the suburbs, notably around O'Hare and in the North Shore, and they had a pipeline to them. Things I had no idea about -— exaggerated injuries, running in mud, inclines of race tracks -- were passed from the owners of the horses to these guys and on to me.

There was one bet-taker, at a bar on the west end of the West Loop, who hardly ever spoke, just sat there doodling in his sports magazines -- Football Weekly, the horse dailies, scouting reports, et cetera -- and taking bets, giving tips, all day long, twice or three times a week. He had another job, self-employed somehow, perhaps ordering and selling safes for restaurants, something like that. He had an 800 number. He was friendly though curt, almost socially inept. There was one guy he was always rude to, one guy who could get on his nerves without muttering a word. An old man, maybe 60 although he looked older because of his emaciated figure and sallow face, would come in once a week and place losing bets. He always lost, supposedly, and the weeks he was most cocksure were the weeks he lost the most. I only saw him two or three times, but the guys always had stories about him. He lived in a small apartment in Old Town and worked on and off, preferring to ride the trains all day and place bets with the various OTBs downtown.

The last time I saw him, and the last time I went to this place, was on the fifth or sixth week of last year's football season. He came in looking especially scraggly, the ends of his long coat were dirty and wet. He tried to put a bet on the Baltimore Ravens, a large bet, somewhere around five hundred dollars. He had obviously just come into some kind of money, maybe a disability or unemployment check. The bookie told him to get lost, that he wouldn't take the bet because there was no way the Ravens would cover, and he wasn't going to take the guy's last five hundred dollars.  The guy wouldn't give up.

He cursed at the bookies. He called him various derogatories, all insinuating something about either his sexual orientation or his credentials as a male at all. The size of his genitals. The bookie stood, angry, and cursed back at him. They were face to face. It was the first time, I realized, I'd seen the bookie stand. He was huge -- just over six feet with enormous shoulders under a leather jacket that heaved as he shouted. He told the guy to get the fuck out, check into a home, he had a problem. Spend the money on some new clothes. Find a job. Give it to his ex-wife. Buy a whore. Take his mind off football, he was no good at it. The bartender started laughing, some of the other guys started laughing, and the old man started shaking, looking around at all of us with wild eyes. Obviously, he'd considered these men friends. Perhaps they had been, as long as the bookie -- the center of their social universe -- found him amusing. True, the bookie was trying to do something nice. He was trying to help the guy, but there was something sinister in the way he did it. He wasn't concerned with the guy's welfare, he was just tired of feeling guilty for taking the guy's money every week.

The old man stood his ground for another instant before the bookie grabbed his face, holding his chin and pinching his cheeks together.

"Get out of here, wouldja?" he said, smiling, "and behave yourself."

The man retreated, ashamed, and I followed him an instant later. I'd been hanging out with men of this stripe for over a year, several nights a week, playing cards with them, watching football, getting drunk, and throwing my money around. I didn't realize that it was just another pathetic drug culture for men who were too weak, lazy, or proud for any kind of legitimate lifestyle.

That Sunday I watched the Ravens game with particular ardor, though I hadn't bet on it that week. I hoped and prayed they'd cover, just to justify that old man. I imagined him marching back into that bar with his head high, laughing at that bookie for pretending to know the future, for pretending there was a science involved with something as inexact as professional sports.

They didn't cover. They didn't even come close. I couldn't help but imagine the hazard junkie watch as his humiliation was validated, and the group of dealers, self-satisfied, plotting for the next week.

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Mike / October 29, 2003 3:52 PM

Excellent article -- just plain excellent. Thanks for the read.

Cinnamon / October 30, 2003 7:06 AM

Excellent article, indeed.

I can't find the link, but I read an article comparing brain waves of men addicted to gambling with those of women who were addicted to shopping. Same patterns, same placement, same intensity, etc.

holden / October 30, 2003 3:39 PM

Definately enjoyed reading this article. Well done.


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