My friend Hey Joe—as 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 happy—happy 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, Alabama—one small unit in a large, unorganized, illegal gambling scene that flourished there for most of the 20th century and continues unabated. People—well, 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!
“It’s pitiful. They have to have the touts, and pay them a bunch of money. And believe me, if those bastards knew who was going to win, they sure as hell wouldn’t tell you!”
Joe is right on the money about the betting flow. During the week, his official hours are from 4 in the afternoon until 6:30, but on Super Sunday, his phones start ringing at 9 a.m. And he is there, along with his son, to answer them, each wearing a headset to keep their hands free to write up the flurry of betting tickets. (“Tell them I don’t have a mom-and-pop operation, mine is a père et fils.”)
While Joe still records his bets the old-fashioned way, he also employs the latest technology. He sits in front of, and gets his odds from, a TV monitor showing the Don Best Sports Tote Board out of Las Vegas. Scrolling up and down the screen, he can study the odds (on all sports) from 24 major sports books in Vegas and the Caribbean and decide what he is going to “sell.” On an adjacent monitor is a spreadsheet showing the year-to-date balance for all of his customers. Two additional screens show the relevant games.
Of course, only the Super Bowl odds matter on this day, and bettors can put money on just about anything. Most people make normal bets: who will win the game and the total points (over/under); on the winner, and the over/under points, of each quarter. “Proposition bets,” on the other hand, get downright bizarre. There is nothing basically wrong with betting on the coin toss (Joe took one bet on this), but who are the people betting on who will score the most points—Allan Houston (Knicks) or the Titans? (Houston was the favorite.) On Shaq’s free-throw percentage on Sunday versus total points scored in the Super Bowl? (O’Neal was the favorite) The total yards from the line of scrimmage by Marshall Faulk, over/under 134? The NHL Grand Salami (the total number of goals scored by all hockey teams on Sunday vs. McNair’s pass completions)?
Joe had the Titans at +6 1/2 early. They went to +7 by kickoff and a lot of people brought them up to +7 1/2. The over/under hung steady at 48. Joe booked around $80,000, most of it on Tennessee and on the over. He had put his own money on the Titans at +6 1/2, and I had followed suit with a C-note. We were not so happy with the Rams up by 9 at halftime, but we weren’t worried either, as we left Joe’s son taking the second half bets and drove over to the “casino.” We started sweating it, however, when the Rams made it 16-0 right after we walked into the joint. It was obvious that casino play wasn’t going to start until the game was over, as everybody was crowded around the two TVs. There was mighty joy in Mudville when the Titans scored their first 13 points.
Bookies are not “gamblers”—their customers are. Bookies are businessmen, as Frank Costello once pointed out in another context. The 16-13 score was absolutely perfect for my old pal Joe (and by extension, me), so fuck who won the game, he (and, alas, I) didn’t want any more scoring. He started rooting for “Big Ben,” i.e., the clock. “Run, run, run, you son of a bitch!” But the gods of the odds had their money on St. Louis.
Kurt Warner’s (painfully) beautiful TD pass drove a stake through Joe’s heart (and mine). We had no enthusiasm for the Titans’ valiant efforts to score. We knew it was over. When Tennessee got into Rams territory, Joe declared, “I’ll give Fisher a blowjob on the 50 if he’ll kick a field goal. I swear I will!”
My loss was a piddling one. The Rams TD that took them to 23 cost Joe $40,000. As quick as snapping your fingers. Easy as that. But Joe is not one to gnash his teeth and tear his hair—in public, anyway. He put a good face on it, and when I left him, he was heading for the craps table.
As I drove through the dark countryside on my way home, a thought hit my mind and I couldn’t shake it. I swear, I couldn’t help it. I thought: Goddammit, I knew I should have bet the under on Marshall Faulk’s 134.