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Money: A Mere Fascination

by on December 17, 2014 6:15 AM

I am not a Las Vegas kind of guy.

My attitude toward gambling has always been: Money is way too hard to come by to fritter it away.

I'm sure I learned this from my witty dad, who liked to say, "Money talks, but it just says goodbye to me."

Although he used to buy lottery tickets. Somebody's gotta win, he'd say. Why not him?

But I was pretty sure the somebody who had to win would never be him. Or me.

I've only won one thing in my life: a bowling ball.

It was the door prize at a Little League banquet. It was dusky red and it came with a coupon that entitled me to have it custom-drilled to the size of my fingers and etched with my name: Rusty.

It felt very cool to bring my own personalized ball to the bowling alley, but a year later my fingers were too fat for the holes and the ball was so light I could have thrown it overhand.

As for gambling, I haven't placed any bets since my nickel-ante poker days back in high school – except for this one time.

I was in Las Vegas for the most unlikely of reasons: I had been hired by the Nevada Arts Council for a project called – I kid you not – the Las Vegas Folk Arts survey.

Is there folk art in Las Vegas? Broadly defined, there is.

I interviewed a neon sign maker.

I recorded the patter of the stickman at a craps table.

I went to a casino to hear a mariachi band only to find that the bandleader had replaced his horn section with a synthesizer.

I went to a Chinese restaurant where magicians coming straight from their gigs whipped off pink-lined capes and played "can you top this?" with various effects, as they call their tricks.

I was in Vegas to work, not play and it probably wouldn't have even occurred to me to gamble were it not for a friend who thought I was one lucky pup to get a gig in Sin City.

Unable to visit, she proposed the next best thing: that I go to the sports book at Caesar's and bet on the NFL for her. I figured as long as I was betting for her, I might as well bet for myself as well.

I went for a parlay bet: You have to beat the spread on three games to win. The odds are long – 6 to 1, I believe -- but the payoff is high. I believe this is what they call a sucker's bet.

High roller that I am, I might have bet $100, possibly only $50 or $75.

Of the three games I picked, I felt most confident about the last one. I can't recall who was playing whom, only that the game involved one of the worst teams in the league playing on the road against one of the best teams in the league – a prime scenario for a blowout.

Here's what I do remember: My first two picks win by margins greater than the spread.

I'm thinking I'm a lock.

The third game is on the radio. I'm driving. The home team leads after three quarters.

Then, as if they know that the planet will spin off its axis if I actually win something, the visitors rally. I break out in a sweat. I squeeze the steering wheel hard enough to liquefy it.

The crappy team wins.

I knew then that I did not have the temperament for gambling.

I haven't placed a sports bet since, not even the office pool at March Madness time.

While I was living through my penny-ante drama, though, a group of bettors had begun to attract the attention of the local newspapers. They were casino workers – blackjack dealers, stickmen and the like. They had pooled some money at the start of the NFL season and agreed that if they won they would plow the winnings into the next week's games and do the same the week after that, and on throughout the 16-game season, if their luck held that long.

Well, it did. By the time they got to Week 15 they had won more than a million bucks. Hence the media interest. Surely, the reporters suggested to the casino workers, it's time to cash out. You could lose it it all on the last week of the season!

The gamblers were well aware. Leave it to a bunch of Vegas casino workers to say a deal's a deal.

Sure enough, on Week 16 the bubble popped. The gamblers went bust. The reporters came running. Regrets? None. Easy come, easy go.

I don't know about you but as I dash around emptying my bank account on holiday gifts, this story soothes me.

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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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