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Tuesday, December 18, 2001
Skunks like me

By Hunter S. Thompson
Page 2 columnist

My working vacation in the balmy wilds of uptown Honolulu came to a jarring end last week, when I got back home to the Rockies and plunged into gambling again.

My home filled up with football junkies and whorish people from Texas who were eager to gamble feverishly on every game being played anywhere, including whatever came up on ESPN Classic. "I came here to get it on," said a cranked-up lawyer from Houston. "This party starts now!"

It was 2 o'clock on a Sunday afternoon, and these rubes were already acting like drunken sailors in Hong Kong. I was not prepared for this kind of situation, but I found it hard to resist. Impossible, in fact, so I quickly caved in and went back to the dressing room to put on my traditional gambling suit -- a blue silk blazer with Arabian pajama pants and a woolly pig-tail wig of unborn dog skin.

By the time I returned to the kitchen, the San Francisco-Miami game was under way, and green money was already changing hands. It was like walking into a cockfight. People were screaming at each other and waving fistfuls of sweaty American dollars. A rich smell of whiskey hung in the air, and even Anita was smoking a cigar. Yes sir, I said to myself, this is my kind of room.

I eased through the crowd and settled onto my catbird seat by the window, then I poured a strong drink and began jabbering in football language as I focused down tight on the game.

Jeff Garcia
As usual, the Good Doctor put his money on Jeff Garcia and the Niners.
I was betting, as always, on the 49ers, giving three points to Miami, and it didn't take long to see that it was going to be a cruel afternoon for the Dolphins. They put up a brief struggle, but by halftime the 49ers' speed and relentless trap-blocking was clearly wearing Miami down. I tossed a flurry of rude insults around the room and waited for the suckers to get angry enough to start drinking absinthe and doubling down on their bets, which happened quickly. It is a fatal weakness among amateur gamblers, and skunks like me are quick to take advantage of it. Once you get sloppy and lose your temper in this business, it's all over. Even your friends will smell blood in the air and start whipping on you like a stray dog.

Victory is a fleeting thing in the gambling business. Today's winners are tomorrow's blinking toads, dumb beasts with no hope. It is an old story, and we saw it again on Sunday night in Baltimore, where the visiting Steelers gave the defending champion Ravens a brutal beating that bordered on shame and degradation. It was a night without mercy for the homeboys, a farewell party in spades.

The Holiday season is always a bad time of year for amateur gambling addicts. They are weak people, as a rule, and they are not built for grueling long-distance work. Whatever luck or even smartness that made them feel like winners in the first few weeks of the football season is long gone by the time of the first winter blizzard, and they are starting to get the Fear. Gambling losses that seemed harmless in October have swollen out of control when Christmas rolls around. The math is working against you, and words like Doom and Disaster take on a personal meaning. The last three weeks of the year are when Winners collect and Losers are forced to pay up or be punished savagely.

The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of brutal things; of broken legs and shattered dreams, of bleeding eyes and whores. ... Divorce court also looms, along with bankruptcy proceedings and Hells Angels hammering on your front door at night and yelling things like, "dead meat" and "kick your ass until your nose bleeds!"

I know these things from many years of close personal association, to put it gently, with the up-close and personal side of the Debt Collection business. It is the dark underbelly of professional sports in America, and where bad gambling debts are collected by any means necessary, including chopped-off fingers and violent extraction of vital organs, like kidneys and even eyeballs, that are known to have money-value on the medical black market.

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I say these things not because I want to ruin you Christmas, but because I am a professional sportswriter with a moral obligation on the scale of a Genetic Imperative to write honestly about the ugly side of professional sports in America, as well as the joy-boy, carefree green-grass warm-sun girl-crazy hard-body Victory-forever-through-cheap-beer-and-all-night-parties style we constantly see in TV commercials for orgiastic gimcracks like Ape-man ab-flexors and fat-free beer and electric Kitty-litter boxes that glow in the dark.

Indeed. But so what? Now back to the story: We watched the Miami-SF game simultaneously with the Eagles-Redskins yawner, and I won them both. Most of the money changed hands on the play-by-play Side bets that rattle around the room at what seems like warp-speed. The basic pregame bets are more like the price of admission to the back room of a very exclusive fight club than a casual invitation to "watch the game" at a friendly neighbor's house.

The side-bet action is modeled roughly on rules that apply in any cockfighting arena. Wagers are offered out loud to all parties, and accepted with a nod of the head or a recognizable hand signal by anyone in the room with cash. All agreements are final, and multiple bets with different people on every play are routinely made and paid off while the on-screen action continues. It is not uncommon to lose three or four bets in 30 or 40 seconds, and leaving the grounds to obtain more money is widely encouraged. I am forced to dip into my own bank now and then, and last Sunday was one of those moments.

My winnings on the first two games were so gratifying that I swelled up with hubris and disregarded my own rules and fell into boozing and babbling. Two brothers from South Carolina lured me into getting so greedy that I went against my own previous bets on the Baltimore game by doubling up on both teams at different point spreads.

That is called a Middle, and it is very risky business.

In my case it resulted in a gigantic double-ended wipeout that destroyed my professional credibility and made me the butt of degrading jokes. My mood turned foul, and I wallowed in rage like a drunken animal. I was humiliated, in a word. For the next 20 hours, I was a poster boy for Gamblers Anonymous. Even Anita sneered at me.

But not for long. Ho ho. Those same two evil bastards came back Monday night for the Rams-Saints game, and I beat them like gongs. They lost everything, and I loved it. So let this be a lesson to weaklings who cave in to their Gambling jones. Do Not Double Up. That is all ye know and all ye need to know.

Merry Christmas from Woody Creek.

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's books include Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, The Proud Highway, Better Than Sex and The Rum Diary. His new book, Fear and Loathing in America, has just been released. A regular contributor to various national and international publications, Thompson now lives in a fortified compound near Aspen, Colo. His column, "Hey, Rube," appears each Monday on Page 2.