The Monkey has two cell phones ringing, a partner with two more in the next room and a major turn of events to weather. It’s Monday, Bowl Day, and Ohio State has begun kicking the crap out of Notre Dame. The Monkey likes Notre Dame (“Luuuuuuv ’em,” he yells regularly), which, at halftime, is on the wrong end of a 21-7 score. He’s up $12,000 at this point in the day, but he has $20,000 riding on this game and the halftime bets he’s taking now will extend him further. He needs the Fighting Irish to win, and he needs the teams to score more than the 57 total points that odds-makers have set as the over/under mark for bettors. At the moment, it doesn’t look good.
“The tra la la of this day is over,” he says as he exits a call, sitting at an incredibly messy dining room table in a borrowed house. “It’s starting to get serious.” The phone rings again, and he’s on it. Further rumination will have to wait.
“Hello, B-7,” he says in a low tone. He started the day loud and brash, the last of the big butter-and-egg men from the East, the kind of guy who walks into a bar chomping a cigar, slapping backs and buying drinks until he’s got people eating out of his hand, buying whatever he’s selling. The Monkey is a natural salesman, the focal point of energy in any crowd and the nucleus one-on-one over the phone. Right now, though, he’s in an emotional and energy trough—he’s been doing this for 12 hours a day since Friday, and the wear-and-tear is showing. Such is the nature of the day and his psychic makeup. The phone gives him reason to smile despite himself. He writes down the caller’s series of bets and hangs up.
“That goddam Caligula is beating the shit out of me,” he says loudly to no one in particular. “He’s running the table on me. It’s brutal.”
The Monkey is a longtime Nashville bookie, and Caligula is one of his biggest players—old Nashville money roaring through life on the playboy trust fund installment plan. He’s taken the Monkey for $25,000 in the last 10 days alone, but even that can’t take the steam completely out of the Monkey’s engine. He is a kid looking over his baseball card collection, a teenager with a hot car, all endorphins and golden possibilities. At the moment, any action is good action.
“How about this?” he says. “The guy’s on an all-nighter, on an airplane, still drunk from New Year’s Eve, calls now and then on layovers with a handful of bets and just hammers me. You gotta love it!”
He would be far less extended if he were just a bookie, because in that role he’s got 11-10 odds working in his favor. If he can even up the betting pretty well, his cut—10 percent of the losing bets, his “juice,” or a bettor’s cost of doing business—would generally make him a nice living. Today’s take alone would be $8,000 or more and this week’s Super Bowl could be another Christmas morning. But the Monkey is a bookie and a bettor, and the two pursuits do not always mix. Hours earlier, before the morning’s first game, he had said, “The best strategy I’ve got is to write down as much as I can and bet as little as I can, but I will not be successful in not betting. I will bet. I get off doing that.” He paused and shook his head. “Matter of fact, I’ve bet already.”
He’s a junkie, and gambling is his drug of choice. He’s susceptible to pretty much anything that will send endorphins screaming through his system—liquor, drugs, sex, food—and he knows to his soul that he is addictive. Liquor, drugs and, to a fair extent, sex are on hold at the moment, but gambling remains the hub on which all else turns. It has been, for decades, at the core of his identity. He has talked before about quitting, and actually did so once, but he couldn’t stay away.
“I used to laugh about it,” he says. “I had what I called The Magnificent Seven. All of them were of the addictive nature, and they had gotten into debt to me. They owed me about a hundred grand between them, to where they could never get even, and their payments totaled $2,700 a week. I used to say, ‘You know what? I oughta just shut the phones off, get a new one and only let the Magnificent Seven have the number and be happy with $2,700 a week.’ But see, then it wouldn’t even be gambling, so I wouldn’t be getting my endorphins off. I had to have live action.”
In the other room, Brent Musburger is talking about what Notre Dame needs to do in the second half. The Monkey is equally clear about his own road map. For all the action and excitement, for all the flying wit and the adrenaline and endorphins playing off each other like teammates slapping each other’s helmets, his role is prosaic: “You write ’em down,” he says.
When the phones are hot, life is just numbers and he’s a simple bookkeeper, someone good with figures keeping tabs on 100 or so bettors and, ultimately, on himself, on his wager with the universe—that he can win enough to make a living at this, and keep from being arrested in the process.
It hasn’t been a good year for the Monkey or for any of the handful of big bookies in Metro Nashville. The Monkey knows good years. When all is well and he restricts his addictions to gambling, he can make an enviable pile of money. This year he entered bowl week down $100,000. Even that, though, is nothing compared with a period of six years of alcohol and drug-induced craziness, during which he was always accompanied by young, attractive and very high-maintenance women. Such women, he knows, can fire exquisitely strong and compelling natural chemicals into his brain, and they are what he calls “one of my leaks.”
“See, I’m attracted to girls that drink, do drugs and if you turn your head for one second they’ll be fucking your buddy,” he says. “If they’re a nice, sweet, normal girl, I’ll be bored with them in two weeks. I like ’em with the venom dripping out of their fangs. I somehow think I can tame ’em, and then I’ve done something. Anybody can hook up with a nice girl you can trust. What good is that? In that six-year run, I had two women I kept up the whole time, you know? Both of ‘em had apartments. I’m paying the utilities, flying with them to casinos. Just crazy. And I’m wondering how I was able to blow through enough money to retire on two or three times. For that reason,” he says solemnly, “I’ve put myself on the bench.”
And then there are the police. Arrest is the background radiation of bookmaking, and in Nashville, the temperature has gone up several degrees lately. Ronal Serpas came to Nashville as police chief in January 2004, inheriting and supporting the Prostitution and Gambling Task Force, which has shuttered storefront prostitution all over the city. Understandably, the task force’s prolific doings have left gamblers more than a little nervous.
Just before Christmas, following a yearlong investigation, a longtime Department of Public Works employee named Herbert Mitchell King was arrested and charged with aggravated gambling promotion for his role in a football betting operation. The word among gamblers is that there’s another bust coming soon. It’s a notion that Capt. Todd Henry, who heads the department’s Specialized Investigations Division overseeing the dreaded task force, doesn’t discourage.
“Warrants are currently being sought for others involved in Mr. King’s case,” he says. “We have also made arrests and served search warrants on various other illegal gambling (including sports betting) cases since December in which the investigation is still underway.”
Most bookies are well known to the police, both the cops and bookies agree. “We hope that the information we have includes the major players,” Henry says. Most, if not all, of the big ones have been busted a time or two over the years, generally because of a complaint, which may come from a bettor’s unhappy spouse or perhaps from a disgruntled bettor or rival.
Such arrests have been classically infrequent, but the threat of such a bust is why the Monkey is in someone else’s home. It’s a well-built older house with dirty curtainless windows looking out on a very nice Nashville neighborhood. There are “three alpha males” living here, and the house looks like the morning after a frat party that began in 1985. Maids come in twice a week, but it doesn’t take long for a tsunami of takeout containers, wine bottles and the like to wash through. On the stove sits a big pot of stew that probably looked pretty good on Friday but has evidently been untouched since.
The table where the Monkey sits is piled with several months’ worth of the homeowner’s mail—huge stacks of ads, magazines, bills and DMV notices. The Monkey reaches again and again for blank sheets of 3-by-5-inch paper. Each caller’s bets are carefully logged on their own slips, then added to master sheets tracking games, bettors and days. He settles up with most players once a week. He has an earpiece that keeps his hands free, but with his reading glasses he looks like nothing so much as a neighborhood grocer taking orders from his regular customers circa 1957. The rush stays on until, finally, as the second half gets underway, there is calm. For a few moments he’s tallying numbers, trying to gain perspective on where he is for the day, the week, the year.
“One thing this business will do is humble you,” he says. “When you think you’ve got the nuts, it doesn’t take many turns of events until you’re on your knees begging for a break. I’m up 35 [grand] for the week that ended yesterday, which means I’m still down 65 [grand] for the year.”
He pauses for a moment. “I’ve been really depressed and befuddled this year. I thought the end of the world was coming for the last 90 days or so. I tell you, it’s the most prolonged losing streak I’ve ever endured, and it’s been like that for everybody in town. I feel like I’m beyond it now, like this week might be turning it around. But then again, it might start up again tomorrow, or the second half of this game.”
He wanders into the next room, joining his partner and one of the alpha males in front of a 32-inch television. With the phones stopped, he, like his customers, can turn to the waxing and waning of fortune on the gridiron.
The Monkey’s background is small-town—he can still tell you who lived in each house and the names of all their dogs and cats. He was a track and football star in high school and college, and he loved the status and attention it brought.
“We won the state three straight years,” he says. “Sports was my whole life. That’s what made me tick. When I ran out of eligibility in college, it was kind of like I had lost my identity. That was a year after my mother died, and really that’s when the alcohol and drugs started flowing full blast. Then I started selling drugs and bookmaking. It was just—it was another way to be infamous, you know? To fuel that ego was kind of what the deal was.”
The money flowed in, and he and a friend bought a bar in a nearby city. “It was a middle-class neighborhood working bar with a restaurant, and all the gamblers hung out there. I was about 25. It was open for two years, and we got busted for having a poker game in there. I mean, they knew who we were. They knew what we did. They ended up putting a padlock on the door.”
The scale of his drug-dealing increased, and he was even importing cocaine and marijuana for a short time, but when, at just past 30, he decided he had to deal with his addictions, he left that behind. He had seen too many partners, friends and relatives get major prison time, burn out, go bankrupt or die.
“To be a success in this business,” he says, “you can’t be doped out. I proved that. You really have to have your shit together pretty much. As a rule, bookies aren’t big drinkers or big druggers. They get their endorphins off gambling and fucking. That’s what their leaks are. As for the other personality traits—they’re risk-takers, and they love to be the big shot, the center of attention.” (His nickname, in fact, is a joking reference to that grandiosity. “I try to remember,” he says, “that I’m like the monky climbing the tree. The higher I get, the more my ass shows.”)
Still, his tone of voice suggests he finds nothing wrong with those traits. “Bookies,” he says, “are some of the greatest guys I’ve ever run across, but they all have that big shot syndrome, and they’re all softies. Every one of ’em is keeping family members or friends up. It’s kind of like people have this thought that if you’re a bookie you’re rich, and bookies try to protect that image. It’s important for a bookie to have people think that he’s made money.”
The reality is often different. The Monkey has been booking in Nashville long enough to know gamblers and bookies whose legacies go back half a century, and it’s not always easy to watch. One day they’ve got suitcases full of cash, the next they’re dying and penniless.
“Bookies—I don’t care how big they are—damn near all of ’em die broke. I had two real mentors in this town, and at one time they were the two biggest bookies in Nashville. One of them was worth a couple million dollars, off and on. Anyway, he died 10 years after I met him, and I went to the funeral, and they took up a collection to bury him—passed the hat at the funeral home.”
His introduction to Nashville’s gamblers imprinted him with a conviction that he’s never lost, that his mentors and their peers are, within the confines of their profession, virtuous men, a close-knit fraternity whose members are often willing to help each other out of jams. Early on, most of the city’s big bookies welcomed him to the club, and he has been happy to return the favor.
“One of my idols was going bad and I was going good—I had $700,000 in cash on hand,” the Monkey recalls. “He owed me 15 and he called and said, ‘Look, I’m having a hell of a tough time right now. Can I meet you Friday for the 15?’ I gave him 15 more and said, ‘Now you owe me 30. Pay me when you can.’ He had done basically the same thing for me. I mean, he is the greatest guy. He’s my mentor. I love that man.”
The Monkey has a pool of about 100 players during football season, and all of them will be on adrenaline overload during Sunday’s Super Bowl. That number drops to 50 for basketball and to 25 for baseball. “The hardcores are the ones who bet year-round,” he says. “They’ll bet women’s basketball, they’ll bet the home run contest at the All-Star Game, anything. I’ve taken bets on whether Phil the Groundhog will see his shadow.”
He knows some of them end up in serious trouble of one kind or another. “When I get a new player,” he says, “I know within two weeks if he’s of the addictive nature. Then you’ve got guys who’ve been betting you for five years, just sailing along—they win, they lose, they win, they lose. Then they’ll go on a bad run. If he’s a hundred-dollar bettor and he’s lost eight games in a row, and he’s down $880, which includes his 10 percent juice, he’ll bet a couple at five hundred, then at a thousand. At that point, I’ll go, ‘Hey, you know you’re down about two-grand. What are you doing here? Don’t get in over your head.’ He says, ‘No, everything’s cool,’ and I know right then he’s screwed.”
Sometimes, he’s blind-sided by the extent of his bettors’ problems, like the guy who bet with the Monkey for two to three years and who turned out to be a circuit speaker for Gamblers’ Anonymous. “All I knew him by was J-1,” the Monkey says. “He quit about 60 to 90 days ago because they found out at work that he was gambling again and they were going to fire him unless he quit betting ball games. He’s been to jail for embezzlement before, embezzling to support his gambling habit. And I didn’t know most of this until right at the end.”
Then there are those who put a happier face on it. B-4 and B-5, a husband and wife who were among his first customers, bet $25 a game each—sometimes playing against each other. “Those are people who will bet me ’til the day they die and never have any trouble with it,” he says.
Bookies, he says, are quick to pass the word on those who skip out on their debts, but the consequences generally involve no more than refusal to take any more of their action. “In Nashville, if you lose and don’t pay, you really don’t have to worry about getting beat up, having your car bombed. If you’re up north, if you’re in Chicago or New York or even Canton, Ohio, and you run up a $20,000 bill and then just shut off your phone and move to another apartment complex, you can bet your ass there’s going to be a knock on the door and you ain’t gonna like it. At the least you’re going to get the shit kicked out of you.”
Capt. Henry offers a caveat to the assessment that owing a wad won’t get you maimed or killed in Nashville, saying that gambling is often accompanied by other illegal activities. “Physical assaults due to gambling debts are not likely to be reported to the police,” he adds.
Sometimes barter suffices. One man who owed the Monkey $20,000 instead gave him a Mercedes. Another gave him a Jaguar, and he lived rent-free in a bettor’s condo to work down a debt.
When he knows a bettor’s in trouble, his strategy varies. “If I like you,” he says, “I may just tell you, ‘I don’t want the $200 this week. I don’t want to do business anymore with you. I mean, you need help. So you can’t call me to bet.’ Now if I don’t like you, I’ll be, ‘Hey, buddy, how you doing? Good to see you.’ I’ll get the 200. ‘I’ll see you next week.’ I’ll keep that fucker on the string forever.
“So, you know, I’m no saint by any means, but there are people—E-17. God bless E-17. Married with three kids. One of his kids is handicapped. I used to meet him and get about $200 a week, sometimes it’d be $150. Sometimes it’d be $300. He always had a tab, and he’d call me and bet the games. And he never ever got to zero. The tab just slowly would keep going up, and I mean I probably did business with him for two or three years. One day I said, ‘Fred, I just can’t do it no more.’ I’m guessing Fred’s got another bookmaker right now that’s taking a couple hundred a week from him.”
The Monkey has faced his own crisis points, times when his debts scared him badly. During one of those, he turned to a mentor. It was the early ’90s, and he was broke, losing every week, admittedly at his wit’s end. His buddy said he had been busted at least once a decade, had been both awash in the gravy and down-and-out. “He told me that if you can’t take going busted, you can’t be a bookie. You gotta just suck it up and hang in there and keep your head down and keep punching. And after he told me that, I had a newfound faith. I came out of that trap and a couple years later is when I lent that money to him. I mean, bookies will try to take care of their own.”
What stability there is in the Monkey’s life at the moment comes from the fact that he’s restricting himself to sports betting, that he has plugged his main leaks—women and casinos. “I can admit to the fact that I have blown a quarter of a million in casinos. And it’s craps. I am queer for the four and the ten. They pay two-to-one, and I love ’em. I am trying one day at a time to stay out of casinos—and, naturally, young women.”
It’s near the end of the day. Even Caligula is down, and the Monkey knows that eventually, inexorably, there’s no escape for the bettors. “You can’t beat the 11-10,” he says.
He and a couple of friends are relaxing in the moments before the phones kick in again. They cheer and groan, their loyalties, like those of the bettors, tied to point spreads. It’s almost halftime of the final game, West Virginia and Georgia. The day has been a good one, and it could get a lot better. “I could win a good $30,000 if West Virginia wins,” the Monkey says. “If they don’t, if Georgia comes back all the way and wins by seven, I’ll probably lose about six or seven thousand for the day. I got five-to-one there. Who wouldn’t gamble at those odds?”
He’s still down for the year, booking out of a friend’s house in hopes of avoiding the bust he fears is coming, aware that the bookie trajectory ends too often with friends passing the hat at the funeral, and yet he’s riding the wave.
“It’s been a hell of a great bowl week,” he says. “I’ve got renewed strength that you can book and win—which I’ve always known. It’s just that this last three months has shaken my thinking about the power of 11 to 10. But it is powerful. You can’t outrun it. Caligula and every one of the rest of them will go down eventually. It’s just a matter of time. As my friend Tarzan, who’s 70 years old, drinks whiskey out of the bottle, snorts cocaine and fucks 20-year-old girls, says, ‘Pal, just make sure your phones are in good working order. That’s all you need to worry about.’ ”