It was not that long ago that I was shocked to learn that friend of mine was scrambling to come up with cash to pay off his bookie. Who knew a bookie? How would one even find a bookie? And, really, who would bet on baseball on a daily basis? Come on.
Bookies lived in the shadows, I thought, tempting Shoeless Joe, Paul Horning, and Pete Rose, but were generally not travelling in polite society. I had seen Newman and Redford as con men in The Sting, had wallowed in one of HBO’s best series, Luck, and had long admired the wordsmiths who write about the nether world of horse racing and gambling, many of whom wrote with an immediacy missing from accounts of other sporting events.
Damon Runyon gave us Brandy Bottle Bates, Nicely Nicely, Harry the Horse, and Nathan Detroit, mixing strikingly vivid gambling jargon in prose that was unfailingly elegant and always in the present tense. The following exchange was not included in Guys and Dolls, the adaptation of Runyon’s story, “The Idyll of Sarah Brown”, but includes much of the breathless urgency of Runyon’s prose.
“ONE of the first guys out of Mindy’s and up to the crap game is Regret, the horse player, and as he comes in Brandy Bottle is looking for a nine, and The Sky is laying him twelve G’s against his soul that he does not make this nine, for it seems Brandy Bottle’s soul keeps getting more and more expensive.Well, Regret wishes to bet his soul against a G that Brandy Bottle gets his nine, and is greatly insulted when The Sky cannot figure his price any better than a double saw, but finally Regret accepts this price, and Brandy Bottle hits again.”
“The Race Track” ran in The New Yorker from 1926 to 1978. The byline used the moniker Audax Minor, but the writer was George F.T. Ryall, regular contributor to the New Yorker and frequent contributor to Town and Country as he also wrote about auto racing, polo, and mens’ fashion. His prose was less breathy, more contemplative, as befit a writer writing to the New Yorker crowd, but it too captured the affection of writer for the sport of horse racing, a sport that belonged to breeders of throroughbreds and the railbirds who bet on them.
“There was something about Belmont that raised it above the level of other racecourses. It wasn’t merely the historic races that were run there, for richer stakes were to be run elsewhere, and it wasn’t just the excellence of the track itself, which gave every runner a fair chance. But Belmont seemed to show racing at its best, in a spacious setting. Whatever the reason, it also brought out the best in horses, and winning at Belmont was was something that a stable could be justifiably proud of.”
Charming, but lest we find ourselves simply waxing nostalgic, let’s recall that these enterprises of great pith are attached to gambling, an issue which is very much on my mind as the Supreme Court tosses out the federal ban on sports betting, the NFL waffles on its policies about gambling in its usual down-the-rabbit-hole fashion, mumbling its disapproval while planning the development of NFL fantasy football empires, and as network radio sports hosts tout betting sites on air. CBS, ESPN, and Fox Sports regularly report the betting lines set on the weekend’s games; talking heads and Vegas gamblers debate the value of taking the over or under on the game’s point spread.
Approximately ninety-five billion dollars will be bet on NFL and college football this year, not counting the three hundred million that DraftKings will collect in entry fees. Given the behavior of sharks when chum hits the water, we can reasonably expect that the scent of billions in transit is more than enough to tempt serious investors to nudge the outcome of games, if only slightly, just enough to beat the line.
A high stakes gambler doesn’t have to fix a game, just shave a few points. I have to wonder how much a fluffed field goal is worth at the end of the game where a point or two does not change the outcome of the game but does change the spread. Kickers get no respect; the temptation could be irresistible.
Point shaving and game fixing have been around for as long as games have been played I suppose. Boxers have taken a dive, jockeys have pulled up on the reins, tight ends have dropped a pass, ballplayers have let a fly ball drop. Easy. Well, easier to fix in less closely scrutinized circumstances. Fix the World Series, for example, and someone might notice; fix CCNY or BC basketball, Northwestern football and the harsh light of public inquiry is less likely to shine. Oh, wait. All three of those rigged enterprises were discovered. Major League Baseball works with Genius Sports to monitor betting on all games; even the benighted NFL keeps track of the lines. The bad news for the NBA was that referee Tim Donaghy gambled himself into debt and made up some of his losses by betting on games he officiated; the good news is that he got caught.
True confession. I drop $25.00 a year on DraftKings, setting up my fantasy lineups with great care and high hopes. If my imagined roster does well, I “win” $3.00 to $5.00 bucks which allows me to continue to play for a week or two more. These stakes are low and the impact on the economy slight, but I am an example of a reasonably avid football fan who once watched my team play on Sunday and tuned in other games at playoff and championship season. To be candid, I did not give a rat’s tail about how the Cowboys were doing, as long as they were losing. This Sunday, however, as the balance of my account is now at $11.68 (I know, huh?), I will be keeping track of the Rams defense, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey, Minnesota tight end Kyle Rudolph, and, of course, watching the Lions … and wide receiver Golden Tate. Whew! Full day of football ahead.