Bill at the bar was a friend of mine. Not a bartender, Bill, but he might as well have been for all the time he spent bellied up there working. And no friend at all, really, but he used the word to distinguish between those whose business he took and those he turned away. You were either a friend of his or you weren’t.
Bill was my bookie, and he scared the hell out of me.
This was ages ago; call it 30 years. I was a too-far-over-his-skis college doofus. In hindsight, Bill was just a low-level kid — close to my age — and probably not all that dangerous. But he chewed toothpicks, wore a black leather jacket and made loaded comments about the men for whom he worked, and it was enough to intimidate.
If you’ve never bet with a flesh-and-bones bookie, you’ve never gambled on sports, I say. Yes, I realize that’s a reach. Sports betting is more accessible than ever, and young doofuses everywhere are wagering at their screens and getting themselves into trouble. Back then, though, fear was part of the deal. These days? It’s amateur hour.
But some things never change. It was a racket then, and it’s a racket now. It was for suckers then, and it’s for suckers now.
Never more so than at Super Bowl time.
I’ve got the Buccaneers beating the Chiefs on Sunday, and do you know what that means? Well, nothing. You’d be crazy to listen to me. For one thing, I don’t bet on sports. For another, I’ve spent most of the last 20 or so Super Bowls playing poker with the same friends who care about the big game as much as I do. There are TVs, of course — we aren’t un-American — and squares sheets and strip cards for each quarter. But the Hold ’Em stops for nothing. That’s the rule.
Which isn’t to say I don’t have an ironclad guarantee for you this weekend. Let’s call it my Five-Star Super Lock of the Century, and it’s this: You have no earthly idea what’s going to happen. An extra week to noodle over the matchup only has turned sports bettors into bigger suckers. The game will go exactly like you think it will, except for probably everything.
Super Bowls, especially, are hilariously unpredictable. Don’t think so?
Last year, Patrick Mahomes and the unstoppable Chiefs offense had all of 10 points past the midway point of the fourth quarter before rallying to beat the 49ers. The year before that, the Patriots and Rams combined for 16 points in the lowest-scoring Super Bowl ever, falling 40 points short of the over/under. The year before that, the Eagles and Patriots combined for the most yards gained — 1,151 — in any modern NFL game, and Nick Foles was heavily involved. The year before that, the Patriots made the greatest comeback in the history of the sport against the Falcons.
Whew. Nuts? Not as nuts as the previous five games — Super Bowls 46 through 50 — in which every single betting favorite lost outright. Look it up.
I’ve got some other sure things for you.
Your cousin Earl, the big-talking online bettor, will tell you about the eight prop bets he won — but not about the 37 he lost.
There will be endless social-media posting about commercials no one will remember a few weeks hence.
It will be the biggest weight-gain day in American history as pandemic parties for one, two or a few take place across our land. You can’t hang with your friends, but it will feel like they’ve taken up residence in your gut as you fight through the fourth quarter despite major gastrointestinal distress.
The children you hope will sit and watch the game with you won’t run down to the basement with their friends in the second quarter to play video games. We’re in a pandemic, after all. Instead, they’ll stare at their phones until you want to heave yourself headfirst into the nearest snowbank.
And about that snow: Tree branches across Chicagoland will crack off and plunge into power lines, ending people’s viewing experiences just when the proceedings at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, have gotten insanely good.
Business has, I figure, long since dried up for the Bills of the world. I suppose I’m happy about that. Nothing personal against Bill, but he wasn’t exactly doing God’s work. I’d like to think 50-year-old me would snatch his toothpick out of his mouth and tell him to get a life, to stop preying on suckers.
I wouldn’t even try to dash out of the bar after that. Nearly a year into a pandemic, the old getaway sticks aren’t working like they used to. No, I’d just plop into a stool and belly up, glad to watch a game without any sucker’s shenanigans. The way it ought to be.