Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

May 23, 2007

Born a Gambling Man

Donald G. Evans has parlayed his one-time sports-betting addiction into a debut novel about a man named Chance and his gambling follies.

Jim Chairusmi

Donald G. Evans started gambling when he was about 11 or 12 years old. He says it quickly turned into an addiction. His bets steadily grew and soon he found himself wagering on at least one game daily, placing as much as $1,000 on single events.

Donald G. Evans/Photo by Will Byington
"The mere act of gambling becomes an enormous betrayal of all the people who've cared enough to try and help you out of a bad situation."

Donald G. Evans/Photo by Will Byington

In his debut novel Good Money after Bad, Evans captures the nuance of sports gambling, in part by calling on his personal experience. Set in Chicago, Good Money details the fortunes of gambler Chance Skinner as he attempts to parlay his bets into a big payoff in 1995.

In the following interview—conducted by email, and edited for clarity—Evans discusses his favorite sport to bet on, the appeal of sports gambling, and why readers should spend good money and take a chance on his book. (Also, you can hear Evans and other sports-book authors read from and talk about their works at the free Varsity Letters event presented by Gelf on Wednesday, June 6, in New York's Lower East Side.)

Gelf Magazine: Is any part of this book autobiographical?

Donald Evans: Well, the novel arises from my own gambling experiences, so a lot of the literal and emotional action is stolen from my life. I stopped gambling prior to beginning work on the book, giving me both an insider's and outsider's perspective on the world I was trying to invent, or re-create.

GM: You also worked as a bookie. Did you come across any real-life Chance Skinners? DE: Sure. Chance Skinner gambles obsessively, gets, at times, into enormous debt, and through it all, despite knowing the odds are against him, clings to the hope that his sickness will also be his cure. He's a guy with a sense of himself that doesn't quite, or even nearly, match his reality. All this is pretty common. I think for most gamblers their gambling addiction is inextricably linked to their self-worth. The depth to which Chance sinks, while not identical in its manifestation (i.e. selling his own internal organs), does pretty precisely match, in ugliness, sadness and pointlessness—the plight of many gamblers I've known, including myself.

GM: What's the appeal of sports gambling?

DE: It's exciting. It's a way to turn a mundane hour, day, or week into an incredibly emotionally charged time. I mean, the Cowboys might be playing the Giants on Monday night TV, and you're thinking, “Who gives a shit?” Then you put a dime on the Cowboys laying three and, guess what? You give a shit.

GM: What was your favorite sport to bet on?

DE: Pro football. In a lot of ways—though not nearly always, of course—football provided the truest results. Basketball often comes down to fouls at the end of the game and overtimes so often distort the real closeness of a contest. Baseball schedules so many games that it's hard to predict when a team will put forth their best effort and when the team just goes through the motions. And there are so many college teams, in all sports, that it's hard to really keep up on the subtleties of a lineup. But pro football…they play relatively few games, and only once a week, so you're pretty much getting what you expect, within certain parameters. Plus, you have a whole week to think through these bets, so you're making more educated guesses. All that said, a fumble on the 1-yard line can throw everything completely out of whack.

GM: Any hot tips for would-be gamblers?

DE: To be a successful gambler, you need discipline, emotional detachment, and a large bankroll. Losing is inevitable, as is winning. You have to be able to absorb losses and not let competitiveness, desperation, or pure aggravation lead you to make plays that don't seem right. I was most successful when I isolated one best bet and put a fairly large amount of money on it, then repeated the process, win or lose. It's a lot easier to be right once than, say, four out of seven times, and more profitable in the long run.

"I thankfully still have all my internal organs, though at 41 I wonder what kind of shape some of them are in."
GM: Are you a Cubs fan? Can the Cubbies serve as a metaphor for gambling? They occasionally tease their fans but inevitably lose at the end. DE: I am a Cubs fan. I grew up on the North Side, where Opening Day was more or less a civic holiday. I don't know if the Cubs are a metaphor for gambling, but there are some similarities. If the Cubs keep playing long enough, they will certainly win a World Series, but when that happens, you'll be able to look back and say that over the course of their history, even with that one ring, the net results are piss-poor. Same with gamblers. Keep gambling long enough and it's inevitable you'll have some big wins, some hot streaks. But over the course of your history you'll almost certainly be able to say that you've still got less money than you started with. Now had the Cubs quit after winning the 1907 and 1908 World Series (at which time they'd won half of all championships and been runner-up another year), or were a gambler who quit after an early lucky run—then that would be money in the bank. But it's incredibly difficult to quit while on top. After all, if you've just won the 1908 World Series, it's seductive, even logical, to think you're going to do it again in 1909. Or 1910. 2007?

GM: You write that it's an unspoken law that gamblers never discuss gambling around civilians. Why is gambling viewed as such a taboo?

DE: Young gamblers often do talk about gambling, but once they've been doing it a while they've gone through a lot of hardships that include borrowing money off of everybody from whom they can borrow money. Usually these big loans come with lectures—"you have to stop gambling, you should go to Gambler's Anonymous," etc. Most serious gamblers owe a bunch of people some money, and even if they've paid them back they've still got these promises hanging over their heads. So the mere act of gambling becomes, after a time, an enormous betrayal of all the people who've cared enough to try and help you out of a bad situation.

GM: The women in this story all don't understand Chance's gambling habit. Why does it seem the gambling bug is something that only afflicts men?

DE: There are a lot of women gamblers—you see a cavalcade of chain-smoking women slot players at the riverboats, and bingo halls are filled with ladies wielding a mean dabber—but in my experience very few women bet compulsively on sports. It's probably a reflection of the overall demographics—men on average spend a lot more time following major team sports than women. The roots of that can probably be traced to the traditionally male emphasis on athletics and winning. I'll bet, though this is just a guess, that the women sports gamblers who do exist were good athletes, are competitive people, and generally think they know more than the next person.

"The Cowboys might be playing the Giants on Monday night TV, and you're thinking, 'Who gives a shit?' Then you put a dime on the Cowboys laying three and, guess what? You give a shit."
GM: Any chance you know what the going rate for a kidney on the opening market is? DE: I don't. I thankfully still have all my internal organs, though at 41 I wonder what kind of shape some of them are in. But I did do considerable research into the 1995 market, and the $25,000 that Chance got was realistic.

GM: Why should people spend good money and take a chance on this book?

DE: I think when we talk about gambling, the emphasis is on the destruction, and that's fair. But I hope this story strikes a good balance between the euphoria and depression, and that it does so with a sense of humor. I'm the last person to give an objective review of my own work, but I do know that I tried to capture a style and spirit that is genuine, interesting, and entertaining. That's what I admire, as a reader, in my favorite literature. Plus, you can get it for less than 12 bucks on Amazon, so this is just walking-around money—not your kids' college fund.

Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.

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Article by Jim Chairusmi

Jim Chairusmi is a journalist in New York.

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