Frank Mann Harris
Though he'll bet on the end of the world, a racing raindrop, or a falling drunk, the gambling "fool" takes fewer chances than you'd think
IT WAS around noon, the day when the papers first came out with that yarn about the guy in California who was predicting how the end of the world was due to arrive the following Friday. Monty Card and several others of that bunch were sprawled out in chairs in the lobby of the Prince Clarence Hotel, just chewing the fat about one thing and another and trying to scrape up enough energy to walk across the street and eat breakfast.
“He could be right, at that,” says Brownie Banks, referring to this west coast pessimist. “What with these atomic bombs and the kind of weather we’re having lately, most anything can happen and probably will.”
“He could be wrong too,” replies Monty Card. “In fact, in my line he is wrong.”
“What price?” asks Brownie promptly; and all the rest of them open their eyes and ears.
“Lemme see now,” Monty answers, like he is studying deeply. “Three and a half—-no, 1 make it four to one.”
“You’reon, fora fin,” snaps Brownie.
“Okay. It’s a bet,” says Monty.
So the bet is made, with Monty laying $20 against Brownie’s five that this wicked old world still keeps on rolling come midnight the next Friday. And as the word travels around the lobby how Monty is offering four to one on such a proposition, most of the others drift over to where he is sitting and take nibbles of various sizes at what sounds like a very fair gamble.
When the action is all finished, it seems that Monty stands to either lose somewhere around $500 or else win himself about, a hundred and a quarter.
“Don’t you figure that your price is a bit generous?” somebody asks him. “After all, it’s nothing but a two-way, open-and-shut affair. Either this California guy has the correct inside I dope or else he’s screwy ; and no chance of a sawoff or any other kind of a finish except one of the two.” “Well, maybe it does sound like an overlay,” says Monty, with just the wisp of a smile showing for a second. “Still—even if I’m hooked, and the world does pop off with a bang, just how many of you are liable to be around on Saturday to collect?” So a couple of minutes later away they all go to get breakfast, one or two still lashing themselves
for being such fish, but most of them giving Monty plenty of credit for speedy figuring, and wondering who they can dig up to hook with the same gag. And as they go to the door Brownie Banks can be heard offering to lay eight to five they will find the eating joint all out of either bacon or ham to go with their eggs, and Monty Card replying, “Sounds like a chiseller’s price to me, Brownieseeing how this happens to beameatlessTuesday.” As you have no doubt guessed, Monty and his bunch are a few representatives of that peculiar breed of folks—of whom there are quite a number in this land of ours—to whom gambling is more than just a pastime, more than a sport, even more than a business. To them gambling is life itself; and at any hour of the day or night, or under any conceivable surroundings or conditions, you will find them prepared to quote you odds and bet you money on any sort of proposition you care to mention—and on lots of others that would never enter your mind or the mind of any other than a real gambling fool.
Money—Something to Bet With
TO THEM money is hardly more than just a form of counter—pieces of printed paper to pass from hand to hand, the oftener the better, and not in any sense representing something principally-meant to be exchanged for goods or services. They spend less on food, drink or recreation than the average person. Their interest in what was once known as the weaker sex is, for the most part, no more than casual. And many of them, who regularly pack around indecently thick wads of greenbacks, live in humble, even shabby, surroundings; for when you come right down to it, what is a home or bedroom but a place you go to only when all the spots where there is a chance of action are closed up?
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For them almost anything will furnish the basis of a gamble. On a wet day they will bet—for lack of something better—on which of two raindrops will show the most speed in reaching the bottom of a windowpane. On a street they will bet whether the next to come around a corner will be a man or a woman; or on which of two trolley cars, approaching from different directions, will arrive at an intersection first.
Very late one night I came upon two of the breed, who were staring intently across the way to where a drunken man was propped against an alleyway wall, his knees sagging, almost ready to
collapse. What went on, I asked them?
“Oh, I’m betting two bucks that when the stew over there finally flops he falls to his right. Izzy here says it will be to the left.”
While a great deal of their gambling is done among themselves, they can hardly be expected to get along—after the manner of the famous wash ladies— solely by taking in one another’s laundry. So, if gambling is their life, “fresh money”—that is, the money of innocents such as you and I—is their lifeblood. And it is well for any such innocent to be extremely wary about risking his cash with them, especially on propositions that are at all unfamiliar.
For when I refer to them as gambling “fools,” that term is not to be taken in
its common meaning; their foolishness being that of the fox rather than of the moron. And while it is a point of honor with them—or most of them—to pay off promptly when they happen to lose, they think it nothing but justifiable to take every precaution, legitimate or otherwise, against that sad possibility. That was the case, for example, in this experience told by a friend of mine as happening to him in a certain Canadian city not long ago.
“The man I went to see was out of town; the weather was miserable, so most of the time I just moped around the hotel.
“You probably know the Blank Hotel. From the lobby you can see the elevators. Over the doorway is one of these indicators that shows the different floors the car stops at on its journeys up and down.
“One afternoon I noticed a group of four or five, sitting in lobby chairs, who seemed to be watching the indicator with considerable interest. I drifted over to them and found that, to while away the time, they were running pools on which floor the car would stop at first on each downward trip. While it stood at the bottom, awaiting passengers, each man drew a number out of a hat. If, when coming down, the first stop was at your number, you won all the money. When the number chanced to be one nobody was holding, that made it a jack pot, with double money going on the next trip, and so on.
“It seemed to be a fair enough sort of a game, so I sat in. The stakes were fairly small at first; but, as folks generally do, we kept increasing them till they were quite sizeable. And after an hour or so I noticed that one dark, thin-faced little chap seemed to be having quite a run of luck. He didn’t win every time, not by any means. But whenever there happened to be an extra-big pot, his was apt to be the pay-off number. He seemed rather surprised about it too, and kept remarking, ‘Gee, I must have horseshoes on me,’ or, ‘This is sure my lucky day for once.’
“Finally the game broke up, with this chap going off with—well, quite a chunk of our money. As he went I happened to notice him nod to the young fellow behind the cigar counter, who only scowled in return. A few minutes later, while buying some smokes, I casually remarked to this cigar clerk that his little dark friend appeared to have pretty good luck at the elevator game.
“ ‘That chiselling highbinder? He’s no friend of mine!’ was the reply. ‘And don’t ever get the idea it’s nothing but plain luck either, Mister. Him and Whitey, that runs the elevator, have it all fixed between them. Any time there’s a pot worth while he handsignals Whitey which number he’s holding, and Whitey does the rest. Sometimes there’s a squawk from the guests, about the car skipping past a floor they’re waiting on; but—hell, there’s plenty more guests these days. Anyway, the two of them make a nice thing out of it, especially when there’s plenty of sue—strangers around.’ ”
The Dopester Plays Safe
Of course they attend the races, these gambling fools; but more as a matter of business than as sport or relaxation. For a large number of them eke out their incomes by acting as— well, “turf advisers” is a nicer way of putting it than using such uncouth terms as “hustlers” or “touts.” You can generally tell them by the expression of more-than-infinite wisdom they habitually wear.
“What’s it look like, Maxie?” I asked one of them as he leaned against
a paddock fence, gazing at the horses entered for the next race.
Almost automatically, lips with a wilted cigarette dangling from a corner approached my ear. “Listen, pal,” said the husky, ultraconfidential voice. “I know somethin’ I wouldn’t tell even me own—”
The voice stopped. I had been recognized. “Aw, it’s only you,” he went on disgustedly. “And me thinkin’ it was somebody that might have dough! Well—this is strictly one of them things where anythin’ can happen. There’s five of them in there tryin’, and any one of ’em could win. I already got me bets on four of ’em; and now, if I can hustle somebody to bet on the other one, I’m all set.”
For here, as elsewhere, it is only wisdom to try and eliminate, as much as possible, the vagaries of chance. Fcr a “turf adviser” the perfect setup, in a race in which there are eight entries, is to have some client betting on each. Then, no matter what the result, you are bound to have at least one to whom you can go with joyous cries of, “Don’t I tell you he’s a cinch?”—also with expectations of due reward for your priceless inside information.
Naturally, in matters of this kind, you must keep your wits about you; for it can be disillusioning, and even dangerous, to go congratulating by mistake somebody you have just induced to wager on a horse that finished a well-beaten last. They still tell of one absent-minded fellow who suffered greatly from such mistakes in identity until he devised the simple scheme of carrying with him sticks of colored chalks. With these it was an easy matter to chalk, surreptitiously, the coat sleeve of each client—using a different tint for each horse recommended—and so keep all things clear.
But from a strictly personal angle, horse racing fails to furnish sufficiently frequent action for your true gambling fool. Only eight races, at most, in a whole long afternoon! And pauses of half an hour or more between each of these opportunities to bet! That is simply ridiculous; and the reason why —if you know just where to look—you will generally find several rousing dice games in full swing somewhere around every well-conducted race track.
Of other major sports, baseball is undoubtedly their favorite. Hockey is all right; but, outside the final result and the matter of which team will score the next goal, there are comparatively few chances of getting action for your money. And the same more or less applies to football. But baseball—now there’s a game for you! For you can gamble not only on the game itself, and on each separate inning, but also on the outcome of every ball pitched.
Once I chanced to sit in a press box right next to the official scorer. I was somewhat surprised to notice, after every close play, a number of fans crowding around, asking him just how he was going to score it. (It was in a city where the scoreboard didn’t show hits and errors.)
I asked him the reason for this unusual interest. He told me that the gamblers made a habit of betting on whether or not each batter would make a hit; and that hundreds of dollars might be resting on his decision. And I even heard of one gambler who approached an official scorer with the suggestion that the latter should delay making such decisions public long enough to flash him—the gambler—a private signal. The suggestion was not advanced a second time.
Card games? Oh, yes, your gambling fool will play cards should nothing
better offer. But mostly he prefers dice to the pasteboards, for what seem to him good and sufficient reasons.
First, they furnish considerably more action to each minute spent in playing them.
Second, a crap game doesn’t require cumbersome paraphernalia such as chairs, a table, or even a room; and can be broken up without leaving a trace in case Thé Law approaches.
And, thirdwell, I think I’ll let my friend Sammy tell you about that.
“It’s like this,” says Sammy. “Supposing a guy is doing something with the dice which he shouldn’t ought to be doing, it isn’t going to be long before I catch on; and then I can take proper measures, such as get out of the game if the guy is bigger than me, or kick his teeth in if he isn’t. But with the cards— what some of these good mechanics can do with a deck of cards is criminal, positively criminal; and you can’t see what they’re doing, either, but only just suspect.”
At this point Sammy sighs heavily, and spreads his hands out on the table in front of him. “These fingers of mine,” he says, with deepest pathos, “are so clumsy I can’t do a thing with a deck of cards, no matter how hard 1 try.” . .
However, cards can have their possibilities, even for those handicapped by inexpert fingers. As, for example, one we shall call Blackie. His happy hunting ground was one certain hotel in a western Canadian city where many commercial travellers, and others blessed with plenty of ready funds, were wont to gather for long, far-from-home week ends.
Poker was Blackie’s game—poker played by a bunch usually gathered together by a feeling of common loneliness. And Blackie didn’t win every pot
either; in fact his luck was, for the most part, only fair.
But once or twice in every session one of those deals would come up which poker players dream of, and talk about for months afterward—the sort of deal where practically every player at the table gets the kind of hand that simply has to be bet on and for which any previously established limit is tossed out of the window by mutual consent.
And when the hectic betting was over, and the showdown arrived, it was invariably Blackie’s hand that topped them all. ßut as he always played with strangers—and seldom with the same set twice—it would hardly be noticed that such hands always appeared on Blackie’s deal.
Not that he stacked the cards. Blackie was so clumsy that he couldn’t have set up a deck with everybody else’s eyes blindfolded. But just at the precise, psychological moment—determined, I have reason to believe, by means of a tiny peephole in the door— just when Blackie had shuffled, the cards had been duly cut, and he was about to begin dealing, Walter the Waiter would arrive with a tray of previously ordered drinks. And, under the friendly cover of the napkin-draped tray, it was a simple enough matter for the waiter to exchange the deck in the dealer’s hand for one elsewhere prepared so as to do the greatest amount of good—-that is, the most good to Walter the Waiter and his friend Blackie.
Ah, well, gambling with strangers is always risky, and especially on propositions that are unfamiliar to you. For that matter, all gambling is folly; and gambling fools seldom attain to eminence or renown. I wonder where I can find somebody that will bet me on whether The Editor will accept this highly moral article or turn it down cold.