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My friend Hey Joeas in "Where you going with that gun in your hand?"is not happy.
"Goddamn, I hate blackjack," he says passionately.
We are sitting in the back room of a small hall in Birmingham, Alabama, where Joe and his two nephews host a 'casino night' every Wednesday and Sunday. The joint has a full-service bar, and they always serve a catered meal. (Last Wednesday's menu was prime rib of beef,
potato pancakes, squash casserole, a pasta salad, and fudge brownies for dessert.) The action consists of two blackjack tables and a craps table, at which you can wager $25 orange chips, $50 green ones, and bad black $100 chips.
"We kill them at the craps table," Joe tells me. "I mean, they get in line to lose money. But we can't do nothing but lose at blackjack. They eat us alive just about every time. Like tonight, we won $12,000 at craps, but we lost $25,000 on blackjack. Shit, you can't stay in business long at that rate. But you have to have blackjack. That's what gets them in the door."
Joe's young nephews take nights like this one really hard, but Joe has been at this for a long time, and he takes a more philosophical view. You can't look at one night, he says, you have to look at the whole year, because he knows that in the long run the house is going to come out ahead. That's the way it goes with gambling. Besides that, Joe's main thing is booking sports, and the casino, in a way, is just a public service, providing some action to keep his regular customers happy. And with the Super Bowl coming up in five days, he wants them to be very happyhappy and ready to drop some heavy dough on the game.
In case you are wondering, that was not a typo you read earlier. Hey Joe operates in Birmingham, Alabamaone small unit in a large, unorganized, illegal gambling scene that flourished there for most of the 20th century and continues unabated. Peoplewell, those people Joe would call "square johns"think I'm crazy when I tell them that Birmingham is without a doubt the sports-betting capital of the South. But it's the truth, and a well-known fact in the gambling world. (Jimmy the Greek, before his fall from grace, once said in a TV interview that if he couldn't live in Vegas, his next choice would be Birmingham.) Money reaching into the millions is wagered on sports there every week, especially during the football season. (Football is a religion in the South, and it was above all else in Alabama even before the coming of Paul "Bear" Bryant.) I can't hand you a sheet of statistics verifying all this, because no one is keeping records. No one, that is, except the bookies, and they use code and, so far as I know, don't issue annual reports.
There is no definitive explanation for how this situation developed in Birmingham. Some point to the large Sicilian population, but I would hate to lay all the blame (or the credit, depending on how you look at it) on them. There are also sizable Greek and Lebanese communities, and the ancestors of most of the "Americans" came from Ireland or the "borderlands" of Scotland and Wales, no strangers to wagering or being at odds with the law.
Joe's parents, in fact, immigrated from Lebanon, and he acquired his nickname back in the '60s, from the Jimi Hendrix song, because it rhymed with his Arabic name. Some of his relatives (affiliated with the St. Louis mob, which merged with the Chicago "boys") worked in Las Vegas from that town's earliest days, so he grew up seeing gambling as a natural occupational option.
Like a lot of bookies in his hometown, though, Joe got into the biz because some friends wanted him to take a few football bets. (Sports books in Birmingham are freelance or a family affair. There's no godfather whose permission you need in order to open up.) Those friends brought along more of their friends, and pretty soon Joe had a nice thing going. And as time went on, he had a nicer thing going. A steady, profitable thing. It sure beats Joe's version of the American Nightmare: "Owning a restaurant. Having a lot of employees. And paying taxes, every day!"
Going into the Saturday before the Super Bowl, Joe had booked only a trickle of action. He cleared $1200 on Thursday night, from a small number of basketball bets (no SEC teams played that evening), and on Friday he registered a career first ("and I was booking before they played the first Super Bowl"): He did not book a single bet.
"We used to get the points on Sunday and people would bet all through the week, every day. Now, they bet on the day of the game. The tout services put out their picks on game day, and that's when people start betting. They got to have the touts. They can't bet otherwise.
"I get people all the time, they call up and say they don't know who to bet on. I tell them, bet on the team you like! They say, 'I don't think they can win.' Well, I tell them, bet on the team you think is going to win! 'Well, I'm not sure they can cover the spread,' they'll say. Well, goddamn, I tell them, toss a fucking coin, and if you lose, curse the rotten thing, and throw the motherfucker away!