And the Winner Is
Sports gambling, coming to a state near you
By Jim Moriarty
It’s that time of year when, at long last, the heat breaks. Geese check out of their quaint Vermont inns and follow their GPS to Currituck Sound. Hordes of unruly monarch butterflies make a thunderous racket flapping off to Mexico. And, inevitably, the mind turns to the gimlet-eyed assessment of point spreads.
Thanks to a 6-to-3 United States Supreme Court ruling last May, the legality of sports wagering has devolved to the states, as the Founders no doubt intended. It was George Washington, after all, who covered the spread against Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Though hard evidence is scant, rumors of gambling in our part of the world predate the Supremes. There is some suggestion that games of chance took place at the infamous Dunes Club and that, in that bygone era, the local constabulary was in the habit of placing phone calls to various establishments around the county to give advance warning of police raids. A few decades ago there was a private club on Broad Street in Southern Pines where it was possible to get those old-timey, pre-internet football betting cards. I know this only because my wife got them every week, inexplicably circling the exact opposite of my own picks while looking over my shoulder. Her winning streak remains unparalleled in the annals of wagering.
Charles Price, the great golf writer, spent his final years in Pinehurst and brought with him the memory of his father, who had been something of a professional at it. “He was acquainted with every notorious hood, cheat and racketeer on the East Coast, and he was afraid of none of them,” wrote Charley. “He was accustomed to being entrusted with large amounts of other people’s money. He always kept his mouth shut about other people’s affairs. And he was scrupulously honest. These were the qualities which set him apart from ordinary gamblers and which enabled him to walk the underworld, if need be, with no more armor than his pin-striped suit and the incongruously flamboyant neckties he always wore.”
When it came to gambling Price’s father played off scratch. We are not all so genetically favored. I, myself, inherited what can only be described as the chump gene, a marker of utter futility in anything involving wagering. I once bet on a horse at the Stoneybrook Steeplechase that decided, rather than gallop along with the crowd, to take off in the exact opposite direction, settling peacefully in the infield as if he was a late-arriving guest delivering Swedish meatballs to a tailgate party.
The worst of it is that there is an element of contagion associated with my particular affliction, a fact that became glaringly obvious to Dick Altman. When I met Alty he was one of the instructors in the Golf Digest Schools. He’d also been one of the magazine’s editors in its early days. It was more than hearsay that Dick enjoyed placing the occasional bet. Sometimes using bills of impressive denominations.
In 1989, in addition to taking photographs and writing stories for Golf Digest, I shot home football games for Clemson University. One of the games that year was Clemson vs. N.C. State. I remember that Saturday as a sunny day. Certainly it was sunnier for me than for Dick Altman.
N.C. State was coached in those years by Dick Sheridan. The Wolfpack was unbeaten, 6-0, and Sheridan’s teams had defeated Clemson three straight times. Clemson was 5-2 at that point. They’d been shellacked at home by Georgia Tech the previous week. Their other loss was to Duke. Yes, that Duke. Can you see where this is going?
Terry Allen was Clemson’s star running back. He may be the toughest running back I ever watched up close. I once saw him get hit high, low and in-between, simultaneously, by three guys near the Clemson sideline, crawl off the field on his hands and knees, puking his guts out, and come back in the game two plays later. For other unrelated reasons, it looked very much like Allen was going to be sitting out the N.C. State game.
Here’s the kicker: State was the underdog. I forget the actual point spread but it wasn’t insignificant. Five or six. “Alty,” says I, “it’s the lock of the century.”
Well, Clemson came bounding down the hill that sunny day in all orange, top of the helmet to tip of the toe, and ran N.C. State right out of the other end of Death Valley. It felt like the Tigers were ahead 56-0 by the end of the first quarter. In reality, they won 30-10 but the game wasn’t remotely as close as even that lopsided score would indicate.
It’s fair to say that if Facebook had existed in 1989, I’d have been on the fast track to a fuming unfriending. Had Alty been able to take our case all the way to the Supreme Court, I’m pretty sure I would have ended up on death row. PS
Jim Moriarty is the Senior Editor at PineStraw and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for anything except gambling advice.