The Sin of Betting

“Bet with him or against him, folks. He’s coming out, he’s coming out, he’s coming and fielding every roll. On every roll he’s coming and fielding, he’s — THAT’S craps-twosixes-a-standoff-forthecheckerplayers-and-the-don’t-bettors. . . .

There was always a fine overlay of comedy in the chant of the stickman who was warming up the customers at the craps table. The high-speed chatter included many variations, but little or nothing of artificially built-up lingo. Every word of it had a precise meaning. “He will! He won’t! Bet with him or against him, and THAT’S five-his-point, five-can-he-make-it, five-his-point, AND seven-the-buster.”

The spiel would scale down an octave or so, sorrowfully, on the word “buster,” and after a moment’s pause the monotone would be resumed: “Getcha-money-down, folks, he’s coming out. . .”The only imagery that I can recall came when a field number was thrown and no bets were on the field: “THAT’S four-a-fielder — ” and then, in mock sorrow, “and not a child in the yard!” The field, as I recall it, looked a lot more generous than it proved to be.

These nostalgic recollections of public dice in Omaha, Nebraska, in the days of my adolescence are prompted by the recent hubbub in a New Jersey suburb where a high school boy was running a crap game in the basement of his home. Police who raided the place were preening themselves as if they had brought in dangerous criminals. The story made many a Page One, and to judge from the tut-tutting and whither-are-we-drifting tone of the press, the thought of a sixteen-yearold shooting dice against his schoolmates was enough to pale the cheek of even the most seasoned reporter. Police accused the boy of delinqucney, and his parents of contributing to it.

The New Jersey boy was hamming it up a bit, it must be admitted. He dressed for his proprietor’s role each evening in a white dinner jacket. As head man, his share of the take was 70 percent, and if the news photograph of his layout was complete, his field looked to be short one number, which bespeaks not necessarily crookedness but rather an extreme cupidity for one so young. His odds for certain other bets were less than generous, even by professional standards. It reminds me of the Maine lobsterman who was arrested for taking “shorts,” which caused his neighbor to comment, “I expect he was measurin’ some of them a mite snug.”

The house in the small-time public games of the Middle West was protected by its edge and by limits of a one-dollar minimum and a fiftydollar maximum, which prevented doubling on any great scale and which exhausted our bankrolls with some rapidity. But these are trivialities. The main point, as we ponder the New Jersey game, is to remember that few experiences are more exciting for an adolescent than winning in a game of chance. The ordinary sixteen-year-olds of my vintage played tenth-of-a-cent bridge or penny ante or, if in funds, five-andten. Craps was too fast for our purses; we preferred a game that we could afford throughout an evening. We all played billiards or pool, the loser paying for the time, and Kelly pool when we had the money to gamble on cue games. We stayed away from the professional gambling places simply because we saw no purpose in bucking the extra edge that the house always set up for itself, and it is this last consideration that makes one wonder why the New Jersey boys were not satisfied to rotate the dice among themselves without indulging their schoolmate in percentages in his favor.

The moralists who had a field day with the New Jersey episode might do well to read the little essay by George Saintsbury called “The Sin of Betting.” In no system of ethics or theology could he find even a suggestion that betting was wrong. “Where on earth or out of the earth,” he wrote, “is the conceivable wickedness, or even naughtiness, of saying, ‘If Pharos wins the Derby you shall give me six shillings, and if he doesn’t I’ll give you one’?” The same critics might give a thought, too, to the words of one of the New Jersey game’s schoolboy customers as quoted in a news story: “Well, it keeps us off the streets. . . .”