Sucker Bets

Confessions of a local bookie

The Baron wants out. He's had enough. Enough of the all-nighters, the booze, the bad habits and most of all, the degenerate gamblers--the DGs, as he calls 'em--and their worthless excuses when it comes time to pay up.

"It's a gut wrench, this life," the local bookie says with a shrug as he orders a White Russian to calm his stomach. He looks across the midtown Famous Sam's at some old guys gathered around an off-track betting feed, drinking their whiskey and smoking their cigarettes and watching their horse races on this Wednesday afternoon. You'd think those guys might make good customers, but The Baron's never had luck signing their type. They'd rather hang out making their pissy little $2 bets all day.

The Baron counts on a different kind of mark: the guy who wants action on sports. He's been taking bets around town for the last six or seven years, running a pool of anywhere from 25 to 50 clients. Most years, he clears six figures, easy, working between the NFL preseason and the Final Four. The summer months of baseball are more trouble than they're worth.

He doesn't have to look hard for customers. In a country where people spend more money on wagering than they do going to movies, ballgames and theme parks combined, there's always somebody who wants to make a bet. Take a look around: Gambling is exploding in America. Every state except Utah and Hawaii has legalized betting, whether it's slot machines at Indian casinos or Powerball tickets at convenience stores. Hell, most states now count on their piece of the action to balance the books. Like the bumper sticker says, gambling is a tax on people who are bad at math.

What gamblers can't do legally, except in Nevada, is wager on sports. Sure, they can bet with their friends or play in an office pool, but they can't put a grand on the Panthers and get seven points, knowing that after the game they can cash in their ticket.

To make those kinds of bets here in Tucson, some turn to offshore accounts through 1-800 numbers or the Web. Some don't mind making an hour's drive down to Nogales to bet at the Mexican sportsbook. And some turn to guys like The Baron, who are plenty happy to take their money.

Take their money, he does. Nearly all of them lose over the course of the season; some lose big.

The Baron gets calls from bankers, lawyers, car dealers, doctors, jewelers, mortgage brokers, restaurateurs. Members of the clergy phone in their picks. Cops bet through friends now and then.

They come from different walks of life, but The Baron has noticed something about all of them. "All gamblers are the same," he says. "They all want something for nothing."

The Baron splits the guys--and they're always guys; maybe two women have placed bets with him since he's been in business--into two crowds: old gamblers and new gamblers.

The old gamblers fall into two camps. One type can afford to gamble. "It's always going to be a part of their lives," he says. "Those guys are usually successful in other areas. They're successful businessmen who can afford it."

And then there's other type: the renters. "They're always going to play with and for their rent. They're total DGs."

The Baron divides new gamblers into three categories: "There's the type who gets bit and never comes back. There's the type who goes on to become one of the old types. And there's the type who doesn't know which kind they are yet."

Like sex or booze or drugs, gambling fulfills a basic human compulsion to get charged up, get buzzed, get high. Look at Pete Rose, who risks everything to bet on baseball. Look at big-mouth Bill Bennett, who drops $8 million playing slot machines before the press discovers his secret habit, and he promises he'll never bet again. Eight million bucks on slot machines, played in back rooms, so the riff-raff wouldn't see the nation's morals czar pulling the lever. The Baron has to laugh. Bennett bet like a pussy.

Here's something else The Baron has noticed:

"Men don't bet to win," he says. "They bet to almost lose."

What he means: The gambling high only lasts while the action is in question. If you're up 50 points at halftime, you're no longer even interested in watching the game. But if you're only winning by a field goal, you're glued to the set, cursing every blown play and turnover, gleefully howling with every first down.

He finds his clients all over. He can go to bars and talk to guys who are watching games. He gets references from his current clients, who let him know they have friends who want a little action. Word has a way of getting around.

One place he doesn't recruit anymore is the UA campus. It's easy to find marks there: The kids are into sports; they're away from home for the first time; they've got money to blow or credit lines to tap. They're also too young to legally gamble out at the Desert Diamond or in Vegas. The Baron guesses that two out of every three guys entering college are willing to bet on something or another.

But he leaves that to the BUGs--bookies until graduation, guys who support themselves through college by taking action. Some of them do well for themselves; others don't have the personality to make it work.

He knows all about college bookies. A lifetime ago, that's where he got his start.

IT'S THE MID-'90s. The Baron is living in a little one-room shithouse off the UA campus and tending bar at a Foothills resort. Back in his teenage days, he ran in the local punk scene, but now, in the Bill Clinton era, he's in his early 20s, and he's a loner. His girlfriend has split. Mostly, he just hangs around the apartment with a bad case of the blues.

The Baron likes to bet. He's been playing for years, ever since he put 50 bucks down on a two-team parlay--Penn State favored, Rutgers getting more than 30 points.

Parlays are a particularly good way to lose money. Both teams must win for a gambler to collect. It increases the payoff--a straight bet is basically even money, minus the bookie's 10 percent charge on losses. A two-team parlay pays 2.5-to-1, but the odds of actually winning are 3-to-1.

The Baron beats the odds with his first bet and collects $125.

"I was hooked," he says, slipping a finger into the side of his mouth and giving a tug. "I was a total DG, man."

One night while he's tending bar, he meets a bookie named Slick Rick. He and Rick start trading the same $500 back and forth for a few weeks. One day, Rick stops by The Baron's place. He takes one look around and sees that this is a guy who needs to get out more, so he offers him a little job. The Baron gets 150 bucks to go pick up some money. He gets a hundred-buck bonus if he gets all of it.

He's sweeping it all up until he comes to a pizza-delivery guy who's short $20 on an $80 bet. The Baron thinks it over and comes up with a plan. He'll cover the $20, collect the bonus, and pizza boy will deliver free pizzas to his place for the next month.

He hands the money over to Slick Rick, who gives him the bonus, buys him dinner and treats him to a night at TD's Showclub. A fat black-and-blue burger at Old Chicago and strippers crawling all over him all night long, just for some simple collection work.

"I'm done," The Baron says. "I've sold my soul to the devil."

Slick Rick sends him down to the campus to sign some new accounts. It's like taking candy from babes. He might as well just set up a table on the mall next to all the credit-card applications.

One time, a half-dozen kids are standing outside a classroom going over a small-time betting pool. The Baron stops to talk to them about wagering on sports, and within 15 minutes, they're all ready to start betting with him.

It's a high-octane gig, being Slick Rick's apprentice: late hours, good booze, hot chicks, trips to Vegas and lots and lots of cold, hard cash. Rick is the consummate bullshit artist, a smooth-talking hustler who starts to teach The Baron the tricks of the trade.

Then Slick Rick fucks up, and there's some trouble with the law, so he has to blow town. The Baron figures, what the hell, and he goes with him. They travel around a bit before setting up shop in Phoenix, where there's no shortage of DGs to tap.

He remembers one time, this guy, Gary Golfer, bets on six different games, hundred bucks each, wins 'em all. The Baron delivers the $600. "You could see in his eyes that it was a lot of money to him," he says. "When you give a guy a pay out, and he gets really excited, it's not a good sign. It means he doesn't have much money."

The next week, Gary Golfer bets on five games, $200 bucks, wins $1,000. This time, when the Baron comes by to pay him his dime, Gary Golfer shows him a nice new set of clubs he's got in the trunk of his car. He can't take them into the house, because his wife would ask him where he got the money to pay for them.

The next week, Gary Golfer ups the stakes again, to $500 a game, seven games. Loses every one of them. Now he's suddenly down $3,500. He's lost all the money he'd won--and more than a dime besides.

So now it's time to collect. Slick Rick and The Baron are on their way out to Tempe to meet him, listening to some local advice-for-the-lovelorn radio show, and a woman calls in to talk about her husband's problem. She's just found out he's been gambling lately, and she's scared because now he's gone off to tell his bookie that he doesn't have the money to pay up.

The Baron starts laughing his ass off, but Slick Rick's face is stone. Goddammit, he tells the Baron, that means he's not going to have the money when we get out there.

Sure enough, Gary Golfer has a hard-luck story about being broke, about paying them off in installments. The Baron suggests maybe he sell those new fancy golf clubs.

"I couldn't do that," Gary Golfer says. "I'd never get what I paid for them."

The Baron doesn't feel sorry for Gary Golfer. When the guy won, he didn't tell his wife about it or share it with his family. He went out and bought himself a new set of clubs. But when he loses, he goes to her with a big sob story, and it's suddenly her problem. "He's a scumbag," The Baron says.

Bottom line: He doesn't have sympathy for any of the DGs who lose. You know why? Because he didn't call them to make a bet; they called him. And because they don't feel sorry for him when he shows up to pay them off after they win.

"Every one of those guys, they called me, and they thought they were going to take my money," he says. "Why should I feel sorry for them?"

THERE'S ANOTHER GUY, Bobby Boxer, a guy with some experience in the ring. He's in his mid-20s, a good-looking guy, could even be a Calvin Klein underwear model.

Bobby Boxer lives in Tucson, but he's still betting with Slick Rick up in Phoenix. Bobby loses $12,500, so Rick and The Baron drive down to Tucson to meet him at Swan and Sunrise and collect the money.

When they get there, Bobby Boxer doesn't have the money, but he has a receipt showing he's sold some stock in his daddy's company. The check won't clear for a couple of days. Rick and the Baron aren't too happy about it, but they agree to give him some time.

Next thing they know, Bobby is calling from Vegas. He's up 40 grand; he can pay them off. So The Baron catches a flight and finds Bobby at the Bellagio, a girlfriend by his side. He hands The Baron $10,000 and asks if he can hang on to the rest so he can play with it. No problem. He and The Baron go out to play some blackjack.

In the next half hour, Bobby loses $30,000. They go up to his room, which has been comped by the hotel, and Bobby orders one of everything off the room service menu.

Meanwhile, his gal pal is lying in a dry tub, slamming her head against the bathroom wall. She had a whole list of things she wanted Bobby to buy her, but now, he's lost every penny to his name.

The Baron goes back downstairs and finds four call girls in the hotel bar. He starts buying them drinks, tells them he's shopping for a new wife, runs a $400 bar tab. He signs it to Bobby Boxer's room.

There's a 21-year-old kid there for his brother's bachelor party. Instead of buying a call girl for himself, he pays one to show the kid a good time.

"You're never going to forget this night," he tells him.

GOOD TIMES. BUT IT'S just a few weeks later when things sour with Slick Rick. The Baron doesn't want to go into details, but he's now on his own. He heads out to San Diego to start a new life, but fate draws him back to Tucson.

Bobby Boxer's debt has continued to climb. He now owes The Baron $6,000, but he's got nothing. In lieu of payment, The Baron becomes Bobby Boxer's roommate, moving into a Foothills home that belongs to Bobby's parents. The Baron kicks him out of the master bedroom and sits on his couch all day, watching TV.

Before long, he discovers that Slick Rick owes a lot of people a lot of money on bets he never paid off. The Baron tallies up the numbers and makes a decision: He'll pay off 50 cents on the dollar, just like if he'd been Rick's partner, even though he hadn't even known Rick was still working the Tucson crowd.

Some of the gamblers respect his effort to make good so much that they tell The Baron they want him to start taking their bets. OK, he thinks, and he shops around and finds a guy--a bar owner--who's willing to be his bank in case he has a bad week and ends up owing people money. His new partner likes to dress up and go to dance clubs and surround himself with beautiful women. The Baron calls him Handsome Harry.

Now, The Baron is the guy in charge. He hires his own runner, a college student living next door named Gonzo, to take care of a few of the accounts.

The Baron takes all kinds of bets: straight-up win-or-lose; parlays where gamblers have to win two or more bets; teasers where they can adjust the spread; over-unders where the combined scores of both teams have to fall lower or higher than a certain number. In any given week, he handles somewhere around the mid-five-figures in bets.

He settles into a routine of sorts. He wakes up late on Mondays, has a big lunch and listens to his messages, usually from DGs who had a rough weekend and are deep in debt. Then he checks his balances to see how he did over the weekend and waits for the gamblers to call. As they phone in to bet on the Monday night game, he confirms their balance and takes their bets.

Tuesday is basically a day off. He checks the lines as they go up on the Web, but there's not much action. He spends both Wednesday and Thursday driving around to pay off winners and collect from losers. Friday is party day. He has a big dinner, goes out, gets hammered.

Saturday and Sunday are all about games. About 45 minutes before the first game goes off, he records a phone message telling everyone his spread, which is usually close to Vegas line. The gamblers call in, listen to the message, make their wagers. Sometimes, he picks up the phone to take the bet; otherwise, he lets them leave a message on his voicemail.

For the rest of the weekend, he's home all day, flipping from channel to channel on his 52-inch big screen, finding out who's winning, who's covering the spread. One thing he hates: He hates going to sports bars and watching games alongside the fucking fans, rooting for their teams because of the color of their shirts.

The Baron learns to build his client base by cruising sportsbars and drawing guys into conversations. He tells them he's a bookie who's available if they ever want any action. After he hooks them, he cultivates an air of mystery by keeping his mouth shut about the details. He tells them, "I just run the office," leaving the impression that there's some Great and Powerful Oz out there who pulls his strings. "You let their imagination fill in the rest," he says.

He'll tell you that it's important to have a runner like Gonzo working for you. While you manage the show, the clerk runs errands, collects debts, makes payments. And he comes in handy when it's time to play good-bookie/bad bookie with guys who need a little incentive to pay up.

Other tricks of the trade: When a guy loses big, you want to commiserate with him. If he dropped a hundred bucks on LSU, you tell him you could have really used LSU, too. You make them think that you took a beating, just like they did.

You want guys to win at least once in a while to keep their spirits up. When they win, you want to pay up promptly, get the cash in their hands. They'll lose it again soon enough. And if a guy's on a hot streak, he usually ups his bets every week until he inevitably gives it back to you, just like Gary Golfer did.

You always pay in an envelope, not from a big roll of cash. It looks more professional. and you don't want them to think you're paying them in money you've just picked up. And he doesn't dress up or drive a fancy car.

"You don't want to be real flashy," he says. "You don't want them to think they're paying for your lifestyle, even though they are."

He hears all the excuses and knows that DGs will lie and cheat and steal. One guy calls him and says he can't meet him to pay off a $200 bet, because he had to leave town to get to his dad's bedside after a heart attack. The Baron looks at his caller ID and sees the guy's at a Tucson payphone. He's amazed the guy would use his father's health as an excuse on such a penny-ante wager.

"Whatever," The Baron tells him. "But you know what? My dad doesn't pass a stone for less than a grand."

He knows that when he can hear an echo while a guy is whispering his Sunday morning picks, the DG is hiding in his own bathroom, because he doesn't want the wife to hear him placing the bets.

He learns to keep his distance from the clients. Sometimes, they want to have a beer with him, watch a game with him. Once in a while he'll do it, but he soon realizes that if he starts to think of the clients as friends, he tries to talk them out of making bets. It's not good for business.

As their bookie, the Baron learns all about their dark sides. Since they're mostly straight-up guys, he's the only criminal they know, so they turn to him if they want to score some pot or find a hooker. He stays away from the drugs--that can spell trouble with the law--but he's introduced some of them to girls he knows.

He discovers that some of the hardest guys to collect from are the rich ones. One car salesman, Neil Wheels, loses ten grand right out the box. He calls The Baron one morning to tell him he can come pick up his money. And he tells him to pick up some beer on the way out to his place.

"Like I'm his fucking waitress," says The Baron, who's coming home from an all-night bender and is in no mood to run errands for Neil Wheels.

Without stopping for the suds, he drives out to a Foothills development where Neil Wheels lives. Neil Wheels wants to show him that he's building a second home behind his first. He's proud that he has two fancy homes.

"Big deal," The Baron tells him. "I've got two pairs of drawers, but I only wear one at a time."

Neil Wheels, who is all of 5 foot 5, starts yelling at some Mexican construction workers who are out digging a hole. The Baron can't believe the way he's heaping on abuse. He wonders if the Mexicans want to drop his midget frame right into the pit they've dug.

To top it off, Neil Wheels is short a hundred bucks, so he wants The Baron to carry the debt for a week.

A guy who owns two foothills homes suddenly can't pay his gambling debts. Classic DG behavior.

But Neil Wheels in the exception. Most folks pay up on time.

"It's all about the better nature of man," The Baron says.

GRANTED, SOME DGs get into a hole and need payment plans, but The Baron is willing to work with them. The truly deadbeat DGs weed themselves out in a matter of weeks when they fail to pay.

The Baron has punched a few guys as a matter of principle, but he says it's a bad idea. Cops don't care much about small-time bookmakers, but an assault charge is a lot more serious.

"If you have to resort to violence, you've lost," says the Baron. "There are at least 10 things you can do before you have to resort to violence."

You can start by hounding the DG, calling him, telling him you need to collect. You embarrass him. You make him feel shitty, because he's putting you in the bad spot with your non-existent boss.

"I've gone out and collected on Christmas Day," he says. "Nobody likes to be embarrassed. Nobody likes to be deadbeat."

If that doesn't work, you try a different tack. You warn him you're going to have to turn him over to the real enforcer if he doesn't cough up the money. You find a new guy to start hounding him.

Once in a while, you have to write off bad debt as the cost of doing business. If it comes to that, the guy just ceases to exist. You never take action from him again, and you never let anyone know that you let a guy get away without paying. If you do, you're asking for trouble from all the rest.

And sometimes, you even find a use for a deadbeat's IOU. One time, the Baron ended up losing a $5,000 marker in a dice game with some members of the Mexican Mafia.

Did they ever collect?

"I don't know," he says. "I don't know."

IT'S BEEN A GOOD run, but now The Baron wants out. He's in his 30s, he has a little baby, he wants to find something else to do. And that's why he's willing to spill the beans about the secrets of his business.

So a couple of months ago, he tries to sell his operation, his list of loyal clients. Cash out, go home, see if he can't figure out a way to go straight. One of his clients can get him a job in the banking industry. Only problem is, he's afraid the gig will be so boring, he'd kill himself inside of a year. "How do you go from the Bellagio with four call girls to sitting in a bank all day?" he asks.

Selling a bookmaking operation isn't like selling a legit business. There's no method of professional appraisal, no assets beyond a list of names of DGs who may or may not like playing with the new guy. Buying a book--well, it's a gamble.

So the sale hasn't gone well. First, Handsome Harry, a guy who's made a lot of money while they've been partners and who's never had to do anything but be there on a bad week, figures he doesn't have to pay The Baron anything. Handsome Harry figures he can just replace The Baron--with The Baron's best friend Paco, no less.

The Baron doesn't much like the feel of that knife in his back, so he decides to steer the clients to Gonzo. He sets Gonzo up with another guy who happens to have come into some money recently. The three of them come to an agreement: The Baron gets some money this year, some money next year.

Before long, Gonzo and the new guy are letting the operation go straight to hell. The Baron starts to worry they're not even going to be in business next year, so he goes back to Handsome Harry and Paco to see if they want to make a deal. Handsome Harry and Paco have had a pretty lousy season, so they're willing to talk.

But now, the Super Bowl is here. The football season is over; the prime earning days are gone. The Baron is sick of all of it.

"I really don't care what happens now," he says. "I need to get away from all of this.

"Gambling," he says, "rips the ugly face off of everyone it touches."

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