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October 31, 2015

“There are two times in a man’s life when he should not speculate: when he can’t afford it and when he can.”

– Mark Twain, from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

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Romantics had their hearts set on the Cubs this month. Las Vegas licked its chops. The casinos and bookmakers are expert social scientists. For decades, Cubs fans have sent their money to these masters in behavioral economics. Cubs fans’ money is probably a line item in the bookies’ annual forecasting, maybe a profit center. Early in the season, Las Vegas was giving Cubs fans 40-1 odds. After the Cubs beat the dastardly St. Louis Cardinals, Sin City adjusted gamblers’ payouts to 6-1 or even 5-2 odds. No matter the probability, Cubs fans always keep their hopes alive. This year, their optimism turned to giddiness.

For good luck this month, I pulled the 1984 Cubs jacket from the closet. I haven't worn it for more than a decade. It worked like magic in the Cardinals series, but as with all Cubs fans' routines, was powerless with the Mets.

For good luck this month, I pulled the 1984 Cubs jacket from the closet. I haven’t worn it for more than a decade. It worked like magic in the Cardinals series, but as with all Cubs fans’ good luck charms and routines, the jacket was powerless with the Mets.

While dreamers banked on the Cubs, the smart money was probably on another team. The smartest money was kept in a wallet.

The gamblers’ world is foreign to me. I don’t know how to place a bet on a sports event and have never gambled my money in Las Vegas.

The first time I was in a casino was in Reno. This was back when were unhindered and young, still absolute together. Good fortune was ours and we were willing to accept perfect as good enough.

The boys were babies and we were driving cross-country in our shiny new Volvo. We stayed in a Reno hotel on our way through town and went downstairs for a late morning breakfast, carrying the boys, a diaper bag and all the other accouterments baby boomer parents lugged around. In order to reach the restaurant at the far end of the building, we had to cross through the casino. Manufactured noise and bright lights controlled the room and assaulted anyone who entered. While we were fully engrossed in our young family bliss, we’d have to be asleep to not notice that we weren’t in Berkeley anymore. Elaborate and uncompromising stimuli methodically drowned out anything natural. We were part amused, part annoyed and a bit shocked by these sounds and sights. The place was filled to about a third of its capacity and nobody there looked particularly happy.

The floor layout was carefully designed to control our passage. In order to get through to the other side, we had to navigate through banks and cul-de-sacs of slot machines and game tables. It wasn’t going to be easy, but we were determined to get on with things, so we secured our little boys and kept going. About half-way through we were approached by the floor muscle – a security guard with a very severe look – black pants, white shirt, black vest, no smile. He asked us if we knew that kids weren’t allowed in a casino. Well no, we didn’t. We never really thought about casinos.

We made our plea. Our mission was simple. All we wanted was a couple of plates of eggs. With his job he had probably seen it all. He quickly put us into the category of clueless and naive. Banking on just plain common sense, he quickly figured out that he needed to expedite the situation. The sooner he could end this Nevada State law infringement, the better for everyone. So he eased up and helped us find the quickest way to the restaurant. We had our eggs and pancakes and then promptly left the hotel. We were soon back in our own little world out on the freeway spinning Raffi cassette tapes in our Gothenburg masterpiece.

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Cards and board games are meant to be played with friends and family. Years later, when the boys were in high school, their buddies came over to play poker on Friday and Saturday nights. I think the pots were modest, even when I left the room – probably tied to the cost of a run to the fast food restaurant. Maybe larger, but we didn’t worry much. All those kids had good judgement and they were just having fun. Some continued to play poker and became good enough to help get themselves through college.

The boys’ Sunday nights were dedicated to school. High school was a steady stream of expectations. There were always upcoming tests or papers to write. I don’t recall any “Sunday night anxiety,” but the entire family was “on” to make sure things were buttoned up and organized for Monday morning.

The doors to the original foyer to the church my parents helped start in the 1960s. This was the escape route kids eyed after Sunday morning service. I remember being of the

The doors to the original foyer to the church my parents helped start in the 1960s. This was the escape route kids eyed after Sunday morning service. The building has been expanded with a modern and fancy sanctuary. The doors to the old foyer and chapel are now used as an entrance to the office.

When I was a kid, Sundays were quite different. School rigor was nowhere the same and homework demands weren’t nearly as stringent. Sundays were a day for church and family.

The church that my parents helped start was hitting its stride when I was in grade school. My parents had many friends there and they enjoyed the challenge of building something from nothing out in the suburbs with the other young families. Naturally then, we spent a good part of Sundays at church. Sunday school in the morning, followed by church service, followed by standing around in the church foyer as everyone talked and talked and talked. From a kid’s perspective, these conversations seemed to take forever. In the winter, were wrapped up in heavy coats and boots, shifting our weight from foot to foot, wondering just how long the adults could drag this out. In the summer, the shirt and ties were cramping our style and the bright outdoors teased us. I remember the relief of watching the crowd in the foyer start to thin, knowing that once we said goodbye to the Pastor and his wife, we would be just steps away from climbing into the station wagon. I had no gripe about any of the very welcoming people at this church – none whatsoever. It’s just that kids move at a different pace and too much waiting isn’t always easy.

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Here’s my mom looking great in the early 1960s, possibly on a Sunday. When I was a kid, I thought my mother was about the best cook anyone could hope for. If the adults’ chit-chat after Sunday church service was shorter than usual, it was likely because she had a roast in the oven back home.

By the time I was in junior high school, things had changed at the church. Pastor West had moved for health reasons (west, appropriately enough). Some of the other founding families left the church when he did. Eventually, my parents also changed churches. They attended their new church regularly, but their extracurricular activities dropped significantly. The new place just didn’t have the buzz of their original (and as I recall, had a few too many busy bodies). So Sundays became relatively wide open and there was plenty of time for kids to be kids. Once mid-afternoon dinner was completed, we were usually on our own.

As a matter of course, my parents and those of all my childhood friends opened their houses to us as we were growing up. We were always welcome. One winter, I spent a number of Sunday evenings learning how to play poker at my friend, Grant’s house. Mr. and Mrs. B. were members of the same church as my parents, but had stopped attending the Sunday evening services also. They had three boys and a small house, but there was plenty of room for our card games.

We’d arrange it with a couple quick phone calls, bundle up for the cold walk, coins jingling in our winter coat pockets. We entered the house from the back yard, into the back room where the folding card table was set up. We circled the table, stacked our coins and flicked those cards around. As competitive teen-age boys, we saw poker as a perfect way to test ourselves. Bluff or not bluff? How to bluff? When to bluff? Who else was bluffing? Who was running on skill and who was riding their luck? We had a blast. Good poker faces were rare. If you were going to bluff, you had to learn to do so while laughing.

Mr. B. made it a point to join us for a few hands. He helped us understand the rules, protocol, and vernacular of the game and kept a little order. He was being a good dad and monitoring the way that his boys and the rest of us behaved, but I think there was more to it. He wanted to get in a few hands himself and have some fun. He laughed along with us and always seemed to enjoy the moment. I don’t know what Mrs. B. thought. Her Christian faith was strict and she held a dim view of pastimes like poker. Maybe she just thought her husband was teaching us about the ways of the world in a safe environment. Sundays were school nights, so the games didn’t last very long. In an hour or two, I was walking back home in the cold, not always with the same coins I started with.

Bevills - Mike, Marilyn, Mark, Dick, Grant 2

Mr. and Mrs. B with their three young sons. This photo of them is from four or five years after our Sunday poker nights. Bets were low – nickels, dimes, and quarters. There were lots of pennies in those pots.

Today, technology lets us gamble in all sorts of ways and makes it easy for even neophytes like me. Fantasy sports is one of the most popular ways to throw away your money.  In early July this past summer, I entered the world of fantasy sports, when Grant, his son and I went in together on a $3 baseball bet. We loaded the fantasy baseball app on our phones and over a good cup of coffee, debated the merits of a good roster. We lost that day, but by the end of the month, I started to think that I was pretty good at combining my money and baseball knowledge. My quarter, $1 and $3 bets were winning. I had turned $50 into $100 and joked with my sons that I was building my retirement fund and having fun at the same time. I did this with old school analysis and systems – box scores, matchups, weather reports, all capped with incontrovertible baseball fan hunches and controlled with baseball superstitions. Foolproof and time-honored methods.  I wasn’t running carefully designed algorithms like the kids who are putting themselves through college or paying off their school debts. While July was a good month, things started to go awry by late August. I was in a bad slump. Then my luck ran out completely and I fell into a full September swoon. At the end of the season, my $200 had turned into $9.27.

Crystla Lake, Illinois

Doesn’t the shore on the other end of this lake look like a lovely spot for drinking morning coffee and placing $3 baseball bets?

Fantasy sports is a multi-million dollar business, dominated by two enterprising companies with tight connections to the major sports leagues, big technology companies who have a grip on our daily routines and serious Wall Street companies. These two companies operate in an unregulated environment courtesy of the Republican-led 109th US Congress. Still trying to write laws they thought would protect the country from terrorism, on October 3, 2006, Congress sent a bill to George W. Bush that was meant to enhance marine port security. The president signed it into law ten days later. Both chambers passed the bill with overwhelming support. There were eighty cosponsors from all around the country from both parties. Nobody voted against the bill in the Senate and only two voted against it in the House. Who’s not for port safety after all?

What does marine port safety and internet gambling have to do with one another? Nothing, but that didn't stop Congress from slapping them together for legislation in 2006. I used this this photo of the Oakland Port was found on Wikimedia Commons, because I can't find my photos.

What does marine port safety and internet gambling have to do with one another? Nothing. I used this photo of the Oakland Port from Wikimedia Commons, because I can’t find my photos of the port.

On September 30, a Saturday, just four days before they sent the proposed legislation to President Bush and more than six months after the bill was introduced, somebody slipped an unrelated amendment to make internet gambling illegal. The draft bill from the day before had no mention about internet gambling. Why would it? This was legislation about national security, after all. Following eighty-two sections about marine port security and government response to transgressions, the amendment about internet gambling has the fingerprints of special interests all over it. Senator Frank Lautenberg said that nobody on the Senate-House Committee even saw the final language of the bill. That was the legislative process that kept poker in Las Vegas and gave us and the major sports leagues fantasy sports.

Certain other specific forms of gambling, such as insurance, financial derivatives, the stock market and commodities, were specifically exempted from the amendment. Another exception was made for fantasy sports, which Congress deemed to be a game of skill, rather than chance. The argument that fantasy sports is not gambling or that it doesn’t require regulation is specious. My eyes were wide open when I lost my money on these baseball bets last summer. I made them knowing that I was trusting MLB to keep the system clean without government regulations. But I don’t know think it should be outside fundamental government oversight if other forms of gambling have to follow the rules on insider trading and other sneaky moves. It’s hard to distinguish MLB’s gambling business as unique from other forms of betting. Further, with the recent incidents and disclosures about the sloppy ways of these two organizations, it’s clear that MLB either didn’t perform their rudimentary due diligence or didn’t care before they joined up with the gambling platforms.

We place out bets on something every day until they blur one into the other. You just have to know which bets you can afford and avoid those that you cannot. Not all of them are made with money. Years ago, I bet the ranch with my heart. Sometimes, love is just a four-letter word.

My very first bet was a good lesson, but infinitely more affordable. I think about it every October. I was a grade school boy in 1969, when the New York Mets steamrolled past the Cubs in September. This left Cubs fans dizzy and joyless. While I was too young to have a historical perspective, others, such as my grandfather, had been waiting since 1945 for the Cubs to play in the World Series. The Mets went on to sweep the Atlanta Braves for the National League pennant and earn a spot in the World Series. While Mets fans were buoyed by their battle cry, “Ya’ Gotta Believe,” I simply couldn’t imagine that they’d beat the mighty Baltimore Orioles and was so emotionally invested in the Cubs that I could not stand the thought of the Mets winning the World Series. I was sure that the Orioles would stop them in their tracks and I bet Grandpa $1 that the Mets would lose. We shook hands and then announced the deal to my parents, grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. My brother and little sister, Becky, were too young to know what any of this meant and probably just shrugged it off. My older sister, always careful and diligent back then, may have thought that she had mysteriously wandered into the wild west, wondering about the flawed logic that I used to speculate like this. She was likely aghast at how reckless I was with my dollar. I don’t know what my parents thought. Maybe they thought Grandpa was teaching me the ways of the world in a safe environment.

Thiesen,Peter 001

My grandfather in his home town of Chicago, circa 1930. Grandpa had a big smile on his face, but the same easy look as he does here, when he took my $1 bet on the 1969 World Series.

After the Orioles won the first game, I was certain I was about to double my money. But we know the end of the story. The Mets pitchers dominated every team that year. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry and a stellar bullpen held the Orioles to seventeen hits and five runs the rest of the way and won the series 4-1. They were the Miracle Mets and nobody, the Cubs, Braves or Orioles would get in their way. My $1 bet and cocksure October handshake with Grandpa meant even less.

How could the upstart 1969 Mets beat a team full of All-Stars and future Hall of Fame players like the Baltimore Orioles? Mets fans will tell you it was a miracle.

How could the upstart 1969 Mets beat a team full of All-Stars and future Hall of Fame players like the Baltimore Orioles? Mets fans will tell you it was a miracle.

October baseball didn’t go Cubs fans’ way this year. But that’s why there’s next season. The young Cubs players will be better next year. And so will we. Believe it.

October. This is one of the peculiarly dangerous months to speculate in stocks in. The others are July, January, September, April, November, May, March, June, December, August, and February.

– Mark Twain, once again from Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

19 Comments
  1. Another enjoyable story-post. I heard about the illegal Internet gambling portion of the bill. Did not hear that it was slipped in as an 11th hour amendment. The act seems as shady as the gambling industry they’re trying to thwart. But I don’t expect transparency from those clowns on Capitol Hill.

    You have a great way of helping your readers connect to their own stories. Well, at least you make me think about my own past. I love it when that happens, so thanks! I think it is totally cool that your parents helped start a church, but I also love the image of you boys on Sunday afternoons, learning to play poker, when you no longer spent so much time in church.

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    • Crystal, those Sunday night poker games were a whole lot of fun. Much more than the Sunday evening church service at the replacement church. Count on it.

      My parents put a lot into helping that church get off the ground. Or to be literal, on the ground. Farm land turned into a suburb needed churches also, it seems. It’s still there, probably 3-4 times as much square footage. One of the office employees gave me a tour when I was back there this past summer.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! What a blog.Thanks for the nostalgia and the stuff I didn’t know. We lived in NJ when the vote came up on allowing Atlantic City gambling. The pitch was that it would help the Senior citizens. (This time it was the Democrats). The first thing they did was buy up senior property and drive them out of town. The huge shore-line casinos had no windows so gamblers couldn’t tell night from day.

    Just before we left, the front page held a photo of a huge casino lobby with kids asleep all over the rug. Their parents had left them there all night while they gambled.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Paula, It seems like it’s been a long time since NJ/AC has had gambling figured out. I’m not close enough to the details, but it doesn’t seem viable any longer.

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  3. The odds for the Cubs will be favorable next year … so expectations and money on the table could be high. Meanwhile, if fantasy games weren’t such a money maker, there wouldn’t be as many opportunities. I enjoy them – but only play the free ones with limited interaction with other owners.

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    • I also make an entry with the free matches. After hundreds of small bets, I’m starting to think that the way to beat this system is with carefully designed software to find the odds at the margins. My methods may be outdated.

      Liked by 1 person

      • In terms of fantasy games, I like the ones with the following characteristics: free, no drafting, no dealing with owners … thus just managing.

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  4. And with the magic wonders of the internet, you can follow your checklist.

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  5. Great post….there just HAS to be a book in the future. Your talent is amazing and I love how you ceaselessly go from one topic to the next.

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    • Gary – that’s very kind of you. Thank you. A book, you say. From where I sit, that seems to be quite an undertaking. I am always impressed with people who can pull that off.

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  6. Our Sundays were much the same. Good piece. Thank you.

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  7. Yes, I agree with Gary – think about a novel – ‘fictionalized truth’ – about the past and how it intermingles with the present and future. About gambling, figuratively and literally. About baseball and how it intermingled with the lives of so many growing up, and then through their adult years. I really enjoy reading your posts. The nostalgia of my childhood, at church, chafing to get out of church, parents and their lessons on gambling (or not), etc. You surrounded me in a soft shawl of remembrances. The photos pulled that shawl even tighter. Thank YOU!

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  8. Hello Bruce! I’ve been looking forward to catching up with you. I hope you’ve been well, and how is that Volvo, by the way.
    I enjoyed reading about your Sunday poker games. Your descriptions are so well written that I don’t need the photos, but I loved the ones you included!

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  9. Fascinating memories Bruce. It reminded me of two things about my own upbringing – Sunday’s were for church and playing any kind of card game (even Snap!) was not allowed. The other was that I used to be quite good at card games and my Mum regularly said to me “lucky in cards, unlucky in love.” I stopped playing card games years ago – I’m still waiting for love . . . !!

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    • Ha! Maybe you need to try those card games again, Rebecca. Lose a few bucks and then you’ll find your good fortune with love. Is that the way it works?

      We should all be lucky in love. No bluffing allowed. Play your hand. I will too. Someday soon.

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  10. A really fine story. It took me a while to get to it… But that’s one of the wonderful things about writing a story down. It’s there, whenever we’re ready for it.

    Like

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