The Wizards of Odds

In Texas, gambling on the results of football, from Pop Warner to Pro games, may be a more popular sport than, well, football.

ALONE, IN A CHEAP APARTMENT, Happy Jim Hacker is waiting for one of his three phones to ring. The phones are on a linoleum-topped, aluminum-sided-and-legged kitchen table which Happy Jim had found along with one aluminum and vinyl chair when he rented the apartment. He is sitting in that chair now, not in the kitchen but in what was intended to be a bedroom, the table before him covered not only with phones and black phone wires but also with sheets of strangely stiff paper, several Bic pens, a list of all NFL teams with numbers beside the names, and a small television now tuned to Walter Cronkite.

Not much of an office for a business the size of Happy Jim’s: A $30,000 to $50,000 a week cash flow, ten per cent gross, minimal overhead. And overhead a single, shining light bulb blatant as a pimple against a faded, cobwebbed, damp-seeming ceiling; walls, pitted and dirty, marked with old handprints and mysterious stains. The one window is completely covered by ancient velvet drapes, once wine red but now nearly black with the years of accumulated nastiness. Opposite the window, standing solemnly behind Happy Jim’s chair, an old refrigerator hums quietly. A candIe on the floor nearby emits gagging scents of “orange blossoms.” And Happy Jim Hacker is locked in; more than locked in, really, he is barricaded. The door which leads into the street is chained and locked, but it is the bedroom door that makes Happy Jim feel really secure. He replaced the flimsy door that was hanging to its hinges for dear life with a door of solid oak. At each corner and at random points along each side he had installed sliding bolts which are now rammed home. What had been a bedroom threshold is now a bulkhead.

Immediately after Cronkite signed off one of the phones rang making Happy Jim wonder if the caller had been watching television, too.

“Yes?” Happy Jim said. “This is R. L.”

“Yes?”

“Is it still pick ‘em on San Francisco-Washington?”

“Washington by one.”

“One? Yesterday it was pick ‘em.”

“It’s one today, R.L.”

“Okay.” There is a pause. Happy Jim taps his fingers while R.L. thinks. “Okay,” R.L. goes on, “give me $50 on San Francisco. Anything else changed?”

“No.”

“Okay. I want $50 on Baltimore.” Happy Jim writes R.L./S.F. +150; Bal—3 50. R. L. makes four more bets and Happy Jim writes them down. They hang up.

“Always bet an odd number of games, dummy,” Happy Jim says to the cradled receiver. “I tell you that every week, but I just ain’t going to do it any more.” By betting six games R.L. will have to win four bets to come out ahead. If he had bet seven games, he would still need only four winners and the odds on winning four of seven are greater than the odds on winning four of six.

The phone rings sporadically for the next 45 minutes. Happy Jim has set up his office in the bedroom so that there will be two doors between himself and whomever should want to come busting in. He really liked garage apartments best because it meant the cops had to bust down a door, climb a flight of stairs and then bust down another door before they found him.

But the perfect place isn’t always available when you need to move. And now he’s got to move again. That’s his first thought when he hears an axe split the street door of the apartment. Then he starts moving.

He hangs up the phone, cutting off a customer in the middle of rattling off his bets. He snatches up the papers on the table, throws open the refrigerator door to get the rest of his records. He hears a commotion of heavy feet trample through the front door into what is supposed to be a living room. They stop there for the slightest moment, looking for him and see instead the heavy, oak door. They are at it immediately, four or five of them. The first blow of the axe shakes the floor where Happy Jim is now sitting next to the candle. The door holds. They’re going to have to chop the thing in two. Happy Jim figures he’s got at least a minute, maybe longer.

With sweat starting to form at his temples, Happy Jim feeds his betting records sheet by sheet into the flame of the candle. Ffffft, fffffft, the treated paper ignites and sputters like a match-head, shriveling to nothing as the stench of burnt sulphur and phosphorus overpowers the candle’s “orange blossoms.” The axe thwoks against the door. A line of sweat is forming down the front of Happy Jim’s shirt. Fffffft. Betting lists vanish into the air; initials, points, teams, names, phone numbers, they all vanish. Ffffft, fffffft.

Happy Jim hears the door beginning to yield, sees the small line of a crack that runs the length of the door and is growing wider fast. He pulls a six-pack of beer out of the icebox, rips open the cardboard wrapping and leaves five bottles on the table next to the calculator. The sixth bottle he twists open. He leans against a wall, drinking and waiting.

The door gives. Cops scatter into the room like buckshot.

“You fellas want a beer?”

No one accepts. Two cops pin him against the wall, search him, announce that he is being arrested for bookmaking and related charges, read his rights. Happy Jim says he wants to talk to his lawyer.

Other cops search the room. They put the ashes around the candle into envelopes and pick up everything off the table but the phones.

One starts to ring. The searching stops; by the second ring everything is quiet. A cop with a pen and pad of paper sits down at the table and picks up the receiver.

“Yeah.”

“This is W.A.”

“Yeah.”

“What’s the points on Houston?”

“Same.”

“I never got a line sheet.”

“Twenty-three.”

” Against Buffalo?”

“Yeah.”

There is a pause. It lasts a little too long. The phone in

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