Sunday, May 28, 2006

Born to Gamble Part I: Where It All Begins

I was born a gambler. I crashed the party of life in 1972, the Year of the Rat. Chinese and Japanese astrologers have believed for centuries that the rat is a symbol of good luck and wealth. If you have credence in those sorts of hokey superstitions, then that explains part of the reason why I've been extremely fortunate in life.

One of my earliest memories was watching the Superbowl XI in 1977 with my father. The Raiders beat the Vikings and my old man was extremely enthusiastic about the win since he had both the Raiders and the over in the game. He hit his parlay and that unstuck him for the NFL playoffs. Watching my first televised sporting was coupled with my first experience with gambling. The two began symbiotic relationship, that still exists in my mind today. From the moment Super Bowl XI ended, I presumed that my father had bet on every sporting event on TV over the next several years. Instead of asking him who won the Jets game, I'd say, "Did you win your bet?"

One of my first sad childhood memories involved my parents getting into a huge argument over gambling. My father's best friend wanted to go to see the Belmont Stakes. He could only go if my father went. I dunno why that was, but the guy's wife was a hardass. My mother wanted to go shopping and told my father he couldn't go. My uncles went to the track and OTB all the time. So did my father and I didn't think it was such a big deal. My overbearing mother thought otherwise. The transcript from that argument has long been forgotten, but I do have vivid memories of my mother throwing things at my father. He skipped the Belmont Stakes that year.

There was an OTB near the subway station in my neighborhood where I grew up. If you don't know, OTBs are legal spots where you can place horse racing bets in New York City. Before the internet and cable TV, those were the only places you could catch the races unless you physically went to the track. I had many humiliating memories of those testicle shrinking moments when your parents boldly reminded you that you were just a kid with absolutely zero rights and that adults will always rule the world. By New York State Law, I was not allowed inside an OTB. I'd have to wait outside while my father or uncles would place a bet or cash a ticket.

As soon as I was old enough (or tall enough), I could peek into the window where I'd see a crowd of degenerate gamblers shrouded in a thick veil of cigar and cigarette smoke as they had their blood shot eyes glued to the monitor as the 3rd race at Aqueduct was about to go off.

I didn't have an infatuation with horses or betting on the ponies. But I desperately wanted to be inside the OTB. Like so many things I'd experience in life, I wanted to do it because I couldn't.

Before I could ride a bicycle, I learned how to read a racing form and spent hours memorizing the sports pages from the newspapers. My parents read the Daily News everyday and the NY Times on Sundays. Before Sportscenter and the internet were ever invented by Al Gore, the newspapers and the four minute segment from Warner Wolf on the nightly news were the only two outlets for me to get my sports fix. I'd read and re-read every page of the papers, memorizing records and point spreads. I studied the stats page in the NY Times sports section on Sundays because they listed the batting average of every player in the majors.

I played cards when I was a kid, but mostly Crazy Eights, Rummy, and Spit. We played some poker, but most seven year olds didn't have a chip set or disposable income to gamble with. We'd flip for baseball cards in the schoolyard, but that was the only high stakes action that I got as an adolescent. I attended Catholic school and there was a phase were we all played Spit religiously during recess and before school started. The nuns actually allowed that card game to be played.

As children, Derek and I only played board games and card games a small percentage of the time. We were Atari video game junkies but spent a large amount of time outdoors playing various sports. We were both somewhat athletic and we didn't have too much space growing up in an apartment so we spent a large portion of play time in the playground attached to our apartment building or in the schoolyard. We played football, basketball, baseball, Stickball, and Stoop. Nobody plays Stickball anymore. All you needed was a bat, a ball, an imagination and at least two people and you had a game. And I don't think anyone who didn't live in an urban environment understands the concept of Stoop. All you needed there was a ball and a bunch of steps.

Man, I'm starting to sound like one of those grumpy old people...

When I was a kid growing up in the Bronx, we were so dirt poor that the only thing we could play was Stoop where we'd roll up the carcass of a disease-ridden cat and hurl it against the front steps of the soup kitchen while the shoeless, lice-infested, starving neighborhood kids shoved each other out of the way. Whoever snatched the dead mangled feline out of the air would get to take it home and eat it for dinner that night. The rest of us would go hungry until the local parish priests offered us bread and soup if we played "Touch the Monkey" with them behind the rectory.

On Wednesdays during football season, my father would come home from work with betting slips. They were either yellow or white parlay tickets that I thought a guy in his office ran. I found out many years later that the Mafia ran the betting slip ring at the local bar called the Leprechaun where my old man spent many of his waking hours knocking back beers with cops and firemen.

My father gave Derek and I one betting slip each and we'd pick anywhere from 3 to 10 teams for a parlay in both college and pro-football games. Being Irish Catholic, my father was a huge Notre Dame and Boston College fan. I found myself picking them and Army a lot. I usually stuck to college games. I can't explain why, but I liked the bigger point spreads. I always took one of the biggest underdogs every week and began my system on picking home dogs. That was also during the same era when the Steelers dominated football. You bet your ass I picked them every week.

I attended a prestigious all-boys Catholic high school downtown and one of the priests ran a football pool. He would give out 5% to the winner and send 95% of the prize pool to a mission in Africa. Father Duffy had been running that pool for decades and I won it a couple of times. It cost 15 cents to enter and one week I took down a whopping $2.65. It was all for a good cause, but among my friends, we were competing for bragging rights. These were some of the same kids who were in the Young Economists Society where we'd have contests to see who'd earn the most money with a mock portfolio of stocks. And yeah, I was a member of that club.

Freshman year I played Stratomatic baseball in the cafeteria and I drafted the 1985 Kansas City Royals. I played them for most of the year and held my own against some of the biggest dorks in the five boroughs. By then I had a Commodore 64 and started playing video games on my computer. I had a copy of Strip Poker and quickly developed excellent skills playing Five Card Draw because I was a horny teenager who wanted to whack off to pixelated images of naked women, who would only get naked if I beat them heads-up.

Sophomore year I discovered two things that would change my life: Liquor and Girls.

Particularly Catholic high school girls. I'm 33 and things haven't changed since I turned 15. I still have an unhealthy penchant for girls wearing plaid skirts and knee socks. Bobby Walters, the coolest kid from my homeroom, once told me that the girls from St. Michael's were all loose sluts who would give you hand jobs in Central Park if you got them stoned and sauced up on wine coolers.

Well, like most rumors you heard in high school, it was a vast exaggeration. And like many of our first sexual experiences, it was confusing and unsatisfying. After Colleen McMurphy chugged a Bartles & James strawberry wine cooler and smoked three hits off a joint, she only let me feel her up for fifteen seconds before she said she felt dizzy and threw up in the Sheep Meadow.

Our basketball team was pretty good and we'd travel frequently to play in various Holiday festivals in Virginia, Alabama, and Connecticut. In the postseason, we'd usually qualify for the NY State regionals in the small schools division and we'd play upstate in Albany, Glens Falls, or Buffalo. We were on the road a lot and the guys on the team would play poker to kill time. The games of choice were Baseball and Chicago which were variations of Seven Card Stud. That's when I started playing for money the first time and developed my skills as a Stud player. I don't recall winning much, but I definitely didn't lose much either. I was a break even player. Where I made all my gambling money was on the betting slips.

When my father would come home with the slips, I'd take them to school and photocopy them. Then, I'd pass them out to my friends before school and collect the tickets and money by the end of the day. Later that night, I gave them to my father who dropped them off to the Westies a.k.a. the crazy ass fuckers in the Irish mob (I recommend State of Grace, a film starring Ed Harris, Gary Oldman, and Sean Penn that's about the Westies).

Once Karate Tony found out about the racket I was running, it quickly ended. We called him Karate Tony because he knew karate. By the age of 10 he was a black belt and appeared on the show That's Incredible busting bricks with his roundhouse kicks. Karate Tony was an Italian kid from Staten Island. His family was in the waste management business and since he knew karate, I was doomed. I was getting squeezed by the school bully and the extremely hairy son of a reputed mobster. There wasn't anything I could do about it.

When we were in the 9th grade, Karate Tony was the only kid in our class who shaved everyday. He looked 21 when he was 15. He would buy beer and porn for all the kids in school and mark up the prices. No one was going to argue with a guy who could kick your ass in two seconds. He also took over my book making operation without any resistance from me. I was such a pussy I continued to photocopy the slips and collect the money which I gave to Karate Tony. All I got in return was $5 which barely covered the cost of the copying fees. I was afraid to tell my father because then I'd end up igniting a war between the Italian and Irish mafias.

During the second half of my senior year in high school, I had a full-time internship where I worked as a runner on the floor of the New York Commodities Exchange, located on the 8th floor of the World Trade Center's south tower. That was one of the most amazing experiences in my life. Everyday for seven months, I witnessed legalized gambling as commodities brokers, corporations and the world's wealthiest investors speculated on the futures of precious metals, livestock, oil, natural gas, and orange juice. I marveled at the lights on the big boards and got goosebumps listening to all the brokers and traders shouting orders at each other. I was caught in the middle of the mayhem, darting in and out of the labyrinth of desks and phone booths to hand brokers orders in the trading pits.

That was when I first was introduced to prop bets and Liar's Poker (which inspired the title of Michael Lewis' book Liar's Poker) where you use one dollar bills and try to form the best poker hand with the serial numbers. The guys in the Silver Options pits were total psychopaths. They were Ivy League coke fiends who partied all night in clubs in the meatpacking district and banged 16-year old Danish models in the back of taxis. They played Lair's Poker all day for $1,000 a hand. One broker had such a horrible week that he lost his Porsche after going on mega-tilt. I was afraid to play and only watched.

One afternoon during a slow trading session, one of the brokers I worked for in the gold pit was in a tremendous slump. He decided to bankroll me against his nemesis in heads-up Liar's Poker. I only won a couple of hands, but nothing can compare to the rush I got bluffing that trader from Paine Webber. That's when I was first introduced to the intoxicating rush of gambling, where the outcome didn't matter as much as the orgasmic feeling that seized my entire body. It was all about the rush, and the moment of jubilant euphoria that seemed to last forever. I tasted the grandiose gambler's high and was addicted. Immediately. I've been addicted to many things in life, but the gambler's high is one of the hardest to kick. I'd end up chasing that titillating surge of adrenaline all over the world during the next decade and a half of my life.

... to be continued

Editor's Note: Yes, that is me who appears in all three photos. And to my knowledge, no cats were actually harmed during the blogging of this entry.

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