Some Skin in the Game

Football-crazy Birmingham bettors seek money and thrills, making the Magic City a major center of the shadowy but seductive world of sports gambling.

By Jesse Chambers, Photos by Liesa Cole

If you don’t think sports betting is popular in Birmingham, if you’re unaware that gambling—on college and pro football, baseball and basketball—is woven into our culture, check out this anecdote from Tommy Deas, executive sports editor at The Tuscaloosa News.

“When I moved to Southside back in the mid-80s to do an internship with The Birmingham News, the cable guy came to set me up at my apartment, and before he started the installation he handed me a line sheet and a card with his number,” Deas says. “So my cable guy was a bookie. For the record, I don’t bet and threw both away, but that should tell you something about the sports betting culture in Birmingham.”

And you can read what writer and former Birmingham resident Michael Swindle said in The Village Voice in 2000 about spending Super Bowl Sunday with a bookie here—“Birmingham is without a doubt the sports-betting capital of the South,” Swindle says, calling this “a well-known fact in the gambling world.”

According to Swindle, “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.”

Still skeptical that a second-tier burg like Birmingham, marked so deeply by a very conservative Christianity, could be a betting hub?

Well, don’t ask me to show you numbers like a bean-counter.

See, what seems to be the obvious popularity of sports betting in the Birmingham area is damnably hard to even guess in dollars and cents, to assign approximate shape or scale to. “No one is keeping records,” Swindle says. “No one, that is, except the bookies, and they use code and, so far as I know, don’t issue annual reports.”

According to former UAB economics professor and gambling expert George Ignatin, “Birmingham is a pretty big gambling area, but how big is impossible to know.” Like Swindle, Ignatin raises the problem of measurement. “For obvious reasons, there are not a lot of people who have a rough idea of the amount of betting, and almost no one who keeps detailed records available for scrutiny,” he says.

What’s easier to establish, thanks to what active and retired Birmingham-area gamblers tell me, is the appeal of betting. It’s the crazy charge you get from watching a sports event when you have money at stake, when—for a few intense hours, or even a few minutes or seconds—the outcome of a game, even of one final play, really matters.

A friend of mine, we’ll call him Joe, is a Birmingham native who started gambling as a teenager in the mid-1970s. “[Betting is] right up there with drugs and alcohol and sex and everything,” he says. “It’s a pretty good rush.”

Lance Taylor is co-host of “The Roundtable” on WJOX-FM, Birmingham’s sports-talk radio station. He’s also a former bettor and says that the rush that Joe describes so approvingly can be almost too good. “I think once you gamble on a sporting event—and this is the unfortunate thing—it’s the high you will never get back,” he says. “Once you bet, there’s a void the next time you watch a game and don’t have action on it. It gives you some skin in the game.”

And it seems by all accounts, that there are lots of people in Birmingham who want the rush, even given the risks, lots of people who are willing to pay to get some “action.”

Top handicapper Ross Benjamin is convinced that Birmingham’s reputation as a betting hub is still deserved. “I have found it to be one of the strongest areas I have ever dealt with, going back to when I was on WJOX a lot in 2007,” he says. “And I know that Mark Lawrence with Playbook, a football handicapping magazine online, has repeatedly told me that Birmingham is his best-selling area, especially for college football.”

Deas believes there is no shortage of betting in Tuscaloosa, either`. “No doubt it happens,” he says. “There is obviously some interest, because we get calls from people wanting to know final scores of obscure West Coast games in football and basketball. I don’t think they’re calling because they are Cal-Riverside fans, so I assume they want to know how a wager came out.”

Ignatin suggests that some of the attempts to restrict gambling in Alabama may, ironically, help create a demand for it. “In general, the best substitute for illegal gambling is legal gambling,” he says. “The absence of legal outlets (except for the dog track) probably increases the amount of illegal betting.”

A more common explanation for the popularity of sports betting in Birmingham is our collective passion for a certain violent sport. “I think it’s the popularity of college football,” according to Taylor. “I don’t have any scientific facts, but I think the wagering is heavier here on Saturday than Sunday.”

According to Deas, “The passion for college football leads to a knowledgeable fan base, and I’m sure a lot of fans think they know enough to have an edge if they place a wager.”

However, my friend Joe—who bets college football, but also the NFL, baseball, basketball and, he says, “even some boxing”—disagrees strongly when I suggest that the amount of betting here might be sharply diminished if you somehow took away Alabama and Auburn and the SEC. “I think it might come down a little, because some people only bet on their so-called team, but people gamble for the excitement of it,” he says. “The same reason they play fantasy football leagues, you know. It’s the same difference. It’s just monetary value associated with it. And it’s the excitement.”

Birmingham native and author Allen Barra, a former sports bettor, sees the hope of financial gain as central to the appeal of gambling. “It’s money,” he says. “There’s a line in that [Martin] Scorcese film, The Color of Money, when Paul Newman tells Tom Cruise, ‘You made me remember that money won is twice as money earned.’ I don’t feel that, but a lot of people do. In a lot of cases, you also feel your smart and that you’re on a lucky streak, but anybody who says it’s not money is nuts. Number two is the adrenalin rush.”

Barra and Ignatin wrote a stats-rich sports and sports betting column called “By the Numbers” for several years at The Village Voice and The Wall Street Journal and collaborated on a well-received book titled Football by the Numbers in 1987.

Alabama and Auburn attract a fair amount of interest among bettors nationally, according to people in the gaming industry I contacted, including representatives of some Las Vegas casinos that operate sports books. “Auburn and Alabama… and other SEC teams are always closely followed by customers of Nevada sports books because of the SEC’s dominance in college football,” according to Gary Thompson, director of corporate communications for Caesars Entertainment.

The much-hyped Alabama-Auburn game attracts its share of betting interest, as well “Both teams have been good in recent years, and the game is usually nationally televised and has a huge viewing audience,” says John Avello, spokesman for the Wynn|Encore casinos. “Therefore, a game with that type of exposure is bet heavily in Las Vegas and with the illegal betting operations throughout the country and most likely even more in the Birmingham area.”

It seems that Alabama is fertile ground for sports betting despite its general religiosity, at least in part because many people don’t seem to judge it harshly. “I think gambling has always been one of those forgivable sins,” Taylor says. “I think it’s a little taboo with people who have never done it, but in this community, it’s so rampant and so many people understand the ins and out, and people here know bookmakers, and they gamble. They view it as a secondary vice, like the guy who has a couple of drinks after work, or the girl they work with who smokes.”

Taylor had his own reasons for giving up sports betting. “One of the reasons I quit is that it’s almost impossible to win money gambling,” he says. “Nobody ever has any discipline. Everybody bets too many games. You get to the end of the week, and you’ve wasted all this time watching games, and you’re down $1,500, so you put down $1,500 down on the Bengals hoping they can cover to get even. And if you lose, you’re down $3,000, and you’re starting the next week, and you’re chasing it all over again.”

Ignatin believes that gambling is an almost eternal human activity. “People have been gambling for eons,” he says. “Whether it’s part of our DNA or just a pleasurable diversion is a semantic question, but there’s something about risk, uncertainty, and suspense that is entertaining.”

Of course, along with the attraction to gambling comes an inevitable fear of its effects. “There have also been people who object to gambling for eons,” Ignatin says. “My opinion is that gambling is consumption activity undertaken for pleasure as a diversion from the more weighty problems of existence. And there will always be people who overdue both the pleasure-seeking behavior and those who are offended by it.”

Joe says that you can’t really understand the pull of gambling until you get into the game. “The only way to really understand it is to do it yourself one time,” he says. “It’s up there with drugs and alcohol, or it can be like an overdose and a hangover.”

Joe made his first bets in the 1970s through a friend, an avid gambler. Then he met his friend’s bookie and starting placing his own bets, and he, his friend and their bookie started playing golf together.

The long-time bettor emphasizes the importance of a personal relationship with one’s bookmaker. “It’s pretty cool the friendship between a gambler and his bookie, because you have to like the guy,” Joe says. “He’s got to be a friend of yours kind of, because it pisses you off to give money to somebody you don’t like.”

Joe, who uses a ring-bound stenographer’s notebook to keep track of his bets and what he’s won or lost, says that he has generally been impressed by the bookies he has dealt with through the years. “Most bookies you find, they are businessmen in other areas—good with numbers, fairly intelligent people,” he says. “Some of these guys have a 1000 or 1500 players. They are not idiots. They need to keep their records straight. They are usually bright people and with good personalities. They are happy accountants, or something.”

I ask Joe if the rush or feel he gets from gambling has changed at through the years. “It hasn’t changed that much,” he says. “When I was younger I had a lot more energy and enthusiasm, but I’ll still get down in the floor and somebody misses that 30-yard field goal.”

Looking back on his gambling career, Joe makes the existential calculation that all long-time bettors must face— “All in all, I would like to think that I’ve broke even, all the way through, which is probably not anywhere close, because most gamblers, they lose,” he says. “They lose more than they win.”

Of course, whether bettors win more than they lose may be almost irrelevant, Joe says: “You’re paying for the rush, like anything else you’d use to get a rush. That’s the price of that entertainment. And you really don’t remember—well, you remember where you lost those big bets—but most of the time you lose one, you just forget about it, put it behind you and go on. That’s why I don’t remember a whole lot of stats and stuff. You just have to put it behind you and move on.”

Jesse Chambers is a contributing writer at B-Metro and a contributing editor at Weld for Birmingham, an alternative news weekly.

A Piece of the ACTION

Reflections on a short career in the sports handicapping business.

by Loyd McIntosh

Gambling makes football in Birmingham a big business for some

I come from a long distinguished line of drunks, philanderers, petty criminals and general ne’er-do-wells. Don’t get me wrong when you read this, since most of my family—parents, sister and a few aunts and uncles—are decent, honorable people, but there is that side of the family tree that should have been pruned decades ago. This uncle is on his fourth wife, that distant relative’s gone AWOL from the Army, and this one spent all the money from his government check at the bingo hall, met some chick with warrants for her arrest in three states, took off in an old Chevy Vega and has never been heard from since.

Stories about some of my ancestors always seem to revolve around the same themes: booze, floozies or pawning a car title. But there is one additional vice that tends to crop up in family stories: gambling. These days it’s more likely to be a Mississippi casino, a greyhound track or an aforementioned bingo joint. However, this is Alabama, and with betting on football and the supporting “business community” so ingrained in our culture, it stands to reason that gambling would figure into some of my family’s history, which it does.

I remember a family get-together at my grandmother’s house one fall—I was maybe nine or ten—with an uncle and one of his wives crowded around the television watching an NFL halftime show. With the newspaper opened to the sports page across their laps, they would cheer or groan as each score popped on the screen. Call me crazy, but I don’t think their response was because they were Seattle Seahawks or St. Louis Cardinals fans in 1981.

Within the last 10 years, I’ve begun hearing a story about a recently deceased relative that has piqued my interest. As the tale is told, it was around 1980, and he had begun working for some nefarious characters and was running several thousand dollars in cash between a pair of “finance professionals” when the dough went missing. How and where it went is a mystery, but it’s common knowledge that it was, indeed, bookie cash. I’ve always thought that story to be a load of bravo sierra, but it might explain why he sold everything he owned, promptly joined up with Uncle Sam, and got the heck out of town for the next 15 years.

With this in mind, it must have come as a surprise to my parents when I—having grown up in the Baptist church and never been in any real trouble—took a part-time job with a sports handicapper during my sophomore year in college. I was young and in need of a little scratch for the weekends, and I answered an ad in the newspaper looking for college students with an interest in sports. I placed a call one morning and was asked to swing by the office in the afternoon and, after a short interview, I as put to work that day.

For a young dude who liked sports, the job couldn’t have been much better. On evenings and weekends, between 6 and 12 guys would hang out in an office, watch ball games and shoot the breeze while manning the phones. Beginning a few hours before game time, clients would start calling in, all of them with an account number (no names), and our job was to “run the lines”for the day’s action. A typical call may go something like this:

Phone rings, I answer with name of company. Other side responds, “This is 3456.” Me: “Alright, 3456, here’s the line. Alabama minus 2 1/2, Georgia minus 6,” and so on. Each one of us would also have a list of premium clients who we would call back each time the line on a particular game moved.

For instance, Alabama may start the day favored by 2 1/2 points, but as money was bet around the country on either side, the point spread would be adjusted. If more people were betting on Alabama to cover the spread, the line would move up. On occasion, the spread on a particular game could be quite volatile, sometimes changing every minute or so, which could lead to some funny conversations.

I remember one afternoon during basketball season when San Antonio began the day favored by five, then went to four and a half, back to five, etc., causing one client on my call list to respond, “Up and down, up and down, like a whore’s night gown.“

It wasn’t all fun and games, though. The guys on the other end of the phone, as you could imagine, didn’t suffer fools gladly, and any 20 -year-old who didn’t get the changes in the line to them fast enough was definitely a fool. Also, due to the nature of the business, we had no idea who the clients were. Were they gamblers? Maybe. Bookies? Probably.

This side of the business is completely legal. The guy I worked for was no different than the ones you can hear every week on local sports radio giving information on who to bet on, why to bet on them, and how often they cover the spread on games that kickoff after the sun goes down, on the road, in the Mountain Time Zone, when the moon is full.

While I personally never bet on a game nor accepted a bet, I’ve thought about this experience a lot over the years. Now, 20 years later, I’m a Christian, married with two young daughters, and I teach a Sunday School for fourth-grade boys—all sports fans. It’s certainly within the realm of possibility that they could be listening to the local sports radio station in the car with mom or dad and hear an ad from some loud voice promising huge returns with their gold star pick of the year. Just call 1-900… you get the idea. I’m not sure this is such a great thing for our young people to hear.

However, I’m not writing this piece to argue whether sports gambling should be legalized or remain the status quo. On the one hand, there is the freedom lover with the Libertarian streak in me that says ‘why not?’ In fact, while I was still in my 20s, I wrote an early net-based sports blog and argued in favor of legalizing sports gamblng in one installment. If you search online hard enough, you can still find it. On the other hand, there is the conservative Christian side of me that has seen gambling, as well as other vices, drain the life from some of my own flesh and blood.

For this, I’m slightly less forgiving.

Place Your Bets

by Loyd McIntosh

Flip on any sports radio station around the nation during football season and you’ll hear them: the sports handicappers and their ads featuring those loud voices promising you their free “pick of the year” if you call or go to their website. Listen closely and you’ll hear them claim to have “the best inside information” or “the best analysis to beat the books.”

A quick search online for “sports handicapping” returns over 600,000 results, the vast majority of them leading to websites and blogs from handicappers and other sports betting experts offering their services, guaranteed to “make you a winner!” Although sports betting is legal only in the state of Nevada, there is no use kidding ourselves, betting on sports is a big business. And when it comes to betting on college football, Birmingham is corporate headquarters.

While placing a bet on a ball game for fun once in a while may be no big deal to many adults, other statistics on sports gambling are more troubling. According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit assisting problem gamblers and their families, about 67 percent of college students bet on sports and 44 percent of high-school males report having bet on sports at least once. Across the nation, two to three percent will become problem gamblers,

Clearly young people who are exposed to gambling, whether just talking about it on the radio or actually betting on games after class, can develop a problem, says Jim Anderson, a licensed professional counselor who helps people suffering from addictions, including gambling.

Anderson says gambling is a process addiction, which means it’s a non-ingestive addiction, unlike addictions to drugs and alcohol. However, he says the activity can be every bit as problematic as an ingestive addiction. All that is required is that first taste of success to hook a person and not let go.

“For compulsive gamblers, it often starts out with the big win. I’ve talked to gamblers who say it feels like the first hit off a crack pipe,” Anderson says. “It’s often after that first really big win that the excitement kicks in.”

Although it may be easy to compare the addictive nature of gambling to that of drugs and alcohol, comparing the public’s awareness of sports gambling’s personal hazards and available treatment options is a bit trickier. Anderson says while gambling is glamorized in popular culture the same way alcohol is, for instance—the old “sell ‘em the sizzle, not the steak” mentality—the pitfalls of substance abuse are well documented.

It’s easy to find a television commercial for a recovery center or a public service radio spot about how and where to seek help for drug and alcohol addiction. There are even reality television shows following celebrities and average Joe’s alike through various stages of rehab. For the gambler, the options for help are fewer and more difficult to find,  Anderson believes.

“Very few people see it as a serious problem, but it changes the wiring and makes to where they have to bet, and do it again and again,” Anderson says. “People at the depths of a gambling addiction can become suicidal. It destroys careers and it destroys families and other relationships. In my opinion, gambling can be very destructive to people who engage in it.”

Recovering Gambler

For many problem gamblers, therapy and support groups such as Gamblers Anonymous, are the only solutions to their addiction. For Robert, a Birmingham native and a former gambler, Gamblers Anonymous saved his life.

Robert, who asked that his last name not be mentioned, says his addiction to sports gambling actually began during elementary school after he began playing the old “Guess the Score” games in The Birmingham News and in football pools. Early on, Robert says, he had a knack for picking the right team. “These pools would cost you $10 and if you got them all right you could win $200. I got pretty good at picking winners without the point spread involved,” Robert says.

In high school, Robert began betting on games with a bookmaker at the golf course his family attended. However, Robert’s gambling problem began to spiral out of control soon after he began his college years at the University of Alabama in 1980.

“This was in the later days of the Bear Bryant era, and I wasn’t being watched by anyone. I was in a fraternity, and just about every fraternity on campus had a bookie,” Robert says. “It was so easy to find.”

Robert began betting small amounts on games—$20 or $25. Nothing big. As time went on, Robert says, he began missing school, betting larger amounts of money and falling deeper into debt, often with multiple bookies. He would bet large sums on a game with one bookie, hoping to make enough to pay off another bookie—often with disastrous ends.

“I remember one day a guy came to my fraternity house backed me against the wall and started threatening me,” Robert says. “Bookies don’t exactly take you to court.

For instance, after receiving a tip that the 1985 Super Bowl between the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots was fixed, Robert followed the advice and placed a load of cash on the Patriots. Chicago won by the lopsided score of 46-10. “My ship didn’t exactly come in,” Robert says.

After six years of college with no degree to show for his efforts, and a handful of bookies looking to collect, Robert was desperate. In a last-ditch effort, Robert used his mother’s credit card in order to keep gambling and score that big win that would fix everything.

“I think she had an idea what was going on. I had been in school from 1980-1986 and my mother started to wonder why I didn’t have a degree yet,” Robert says. “She insisted I move back to Birmingham and go to (Gamblers Anonymous) meetings.

Twenty-six years later, Robert is now married, has his college degree, has stayed away from gambling completely and, perhaps most important, he says he can now sleep at night not worrying about how he’s going to pay off the bookies.  “It was crazy and totally an illness,” he adds. “I really had no time for relationships and I lost a lot of friends. All I wanted to do was earn a living gambling. It was not a good life.”

The Somewhat Active Gambler
Statistics published by the National Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG) show that two to three percent of those who start betting on sports will eventually become problem gamblers. However, that doesn’t mean that even the most careful players can’t find themselves in a little trouble now and then.

One young downtown professional— we’ll call him Kenny, as in Kenny Rogers and his song “The Gambler”—started betting while a student at Auburn. He and a CPA friend, over the years, have developed a spreadsheet they use to determine which teams to bet on throughout the season. Kenny admits, their system might have a  few holes in it.

“At one point the year before last we got down around $850. We were betting $50 per game, and one weekend we lost nine out of 10 games,” Kenny says. “That’s when it got a little scary for me. I think we’ve made the decision to slow down a little bit.”

As he saw their bankroll decline and the debt rise, Kenny says he finally saw how gambling can become problem as you try to make up for losses by making larger bets. Still, he says, having a little skin in the game adds a little something extra to football Saturdays, even though he says he believes gambling should remain illegal and that the handicappers make him a little insane.

“I can totally see how someone can sucked into it, and making it legal is like giving a criminal a gun,” Kenny says. “Although, when you watch an SEC football game and you have $50 bet on your team, it makes it more exciting. But, if I lose that $50 I’ll beat myself up about it all day long.

“No lie, I got three calls today from a Vegas sports book that I called one day after hearing them on the Paul Finebaum network for their guaranteed lock,” Kenny adds. “Not a day goes by that I don’t get a phone call or a text message from them. I’ve started making up characters and messing with them when they call. That brings me great pleasure.”

Even though Kenny the Gambler claims to have reservations about betting on football, he can’t help himself from making a big play once in a while. He says he made several hundred dollars betting on his alma mater, Auburn, in the National Championship Game. However, his CAP buddy won really big on that game, and you won’t believe how he collected his winnings.

“My buddy over in Atlanta won $5,500 by betting on Auburn in the National Championship game and his bookie FedExed him the cash,” Kenny the Gambler says. “He texted me a photo of an envelope with $5,500 in 50-dollar bills. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

The Life of a (former) Bookie

Somewhere in the greater Birmingham area there is a man in his late 30s with a wife and four year old son to care for. He spends his days just like any other red-blooded male: holding down a job, taking his boy to baseball practice, and minding his own business. However, up until just a few short years ago, his business was as a bookie.

The bookie, or bookmaker, simply put is the guy in 49 out of 50 states gamblers place bets with in secret. However, the former bookie we spoke to—we’ll refer to him as Mr. Bookman—says for the 10 years he was active in the business, most everyone in his small town knew what he did for a living.

Bookman started his bookmaking business in the mid 1990s along with a partner and a bankroll of around $20,000. He stayed with it for about 10 years, going through a handful of partners along the way until he was the last man standing running the operation which, given its underground, illegal nature, was full of ups and downs.

“We made pretty good money at it, but it was by no means big. We could earn  $60,000, $70,000, $80,00 a year that we would split. When you’re in your mid-20s, that’s a good living,” Bookman says. “There were a lot of headaches, though. I enjoyed working the phones and talking to our clients, but I hated having to collect.

“Booking itself is a misdemeanor and they have to catch you in the act of doing it. When you start going after your money, it turns into racketeering, and that’ll get you 10 to 20 years in prison,” Bookman says. “That was just a line I wasn’t willing to cross.”

In the decade Bookman ran his operation, he estimates that they averaged losing $20,000 per year from uncollected funds. He says the fear of doing hard time kept him from doing anything stupid, although he has heard stories about other bookies in Birmingham resorting to intimidation and threats in order to collect. In fact, Bookman tried to help many of his clients whom he knew couldn’t cover their bets by helping  them to understand what they were getting into and to rethink their decisions.

“You can tell when people are desperate when they’re down $1,000 and they try to catch up playing an $800 parlay. Now, when they lose they’re down $1,700 to $1,800,” Bookman says. “I talked people out of betting because I knew they were in over their heads.”

Still, a bookmaker has to collect the majority of the cash coming to him or he goes out of business. Therefore, he has to take advantage of opportunities to collect when they arise, even it might lead to an uncomfortable confrontation.

“I was at a casino once and saw a fellow who owed me quite a bit of money. He was there with his wife and I’m pretty sure he saw me,” Bookman says. “I saw him later in the bathroom and I said to him ‘you need to pay that money you owe me.’ He called security and had me thrown out of the casino.”


One Response to “Some Skin in the Game”

  1. Beau Forsythe says:

    Bravo! Well written and researched piece that encompasses the business from best to worst case scenarios. It gives the reader insightful knowledge of the why and why not of gambling from different angles-bookmaker to client, fun to problem, dream to reality. Participates will understand, if not commiserate, and others will learn why their friend does it. Anyone who has any connection to sports betting will find this article to be pretty much “on the money”, and that, my friends, is the name of the game .

    Great job Jesse.

Leave a Reply