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Gambling Through The Recession: A True Story Of Horses, Dreams & Sleeper Sofas

EDITOR’S NOTE: Names have been changed to protect the guilty and innocent.

The Human Computer’s name was Dave, but no real horseplayer goes by just a first name. Gamblers, like gangsters, honor their own with nicknames.

At Arlington Park, the suburban racetrack north of Chicago, the guys who measured out their opinions twenty bucks at a time were known as Blonde Jimmy, David The Owl, Bob the Brain, and Bias Bill. There was a Pole called Murphy, a name he’d picked up from a World War II sergeant who couldn’t pronounce “Czyzewicz.” An ex-college dean had been Thomas Claeys, M.S., on campus. At Arlington, he was The Scholar. The Scholar quit academia during his mid-life crisis, and earned more money as a handicapper: he’d paid off his mortgage by cashing an $81,000 ticket.

Dave was The Human Computer because he always brought his laptop to the track, and sat on the third floor of the grandstand, in an alcove hidden behind an escalator, never more than a cord’s length from an outlet. From there, he could only watch the races on the closed-circuit televisions hanging from the ceiling, but The Human Computer didn’t bet the horses based on how athletically they ran. He bet them based on speed figures, numerical ratings of each horse’s effort, calculated by The Scholar. Those numbers were all in the computer.

The Human Computer was 43 years old when I first met him. I was writing a book about my quest to beat the races, and all the odd characters I met—I was going for something between Damon Runyon and Cannery Row. The Scholar was Doc, and his merry band were the bums. I found The Human Computer sitting in the corner of the third-floor alcove, which The Scholar had dubbed “The Rebel Enclave.”

The Human Computer was too large for the room in which he sat, and for the tool he carried. He was six feet, four inches tall, and weighed either one offensive lineman or three jockeys, with a belly that so threatened his acquaintances’ personal space it had to be contained by suspenders. His computer teetered on the precipices of his kneecaps. His outfit—feral gray beard, striped polo shirt, blue jeans and heavy leather boots—was the costume of a man who had slipped the restraints of maturity after years of marriage and corporate labor, and was finding his way back to boyhood.

The Human Computer had a better plan for his life: he wanted to become a professional gambler. He’d discovered horse racing when a bowling teammate invited him to the track. That first Saturday, he bet every race, lost every race, and vowed never again to waste his money on predicting animal behavior. Three weeks later, he received the same invitation, but this time, the bowling teammate was bringing along his cute girlfriend. The Human Computer picked four winners, won $40, and thought, “Where has this game been all my life?”

The Human Computer convinced his wife to let him buy a personal computer, so he could track winning horses. Her mistake: The Human Computer fell in love. He picked a 6-1 winner, and hit a $300 Pick Three. After that, The Human Computer began to imagine that gambling could rescue him from his job and his sexual frustrations. As a professional horseplayer, he’d live like Dean Martin, sitting in a Vegas sports book where beautiful cocktail waitresses served Miller High Life tallboys. Whenever he proposed quitting the bank, The Human Computer’s wife reminded him, “We have a mortgage.”

So, The Human Computer fired his boss and his wife. At the bank where he spent 70 hours a week troubleshooting a balky computer, he felt like an exploited chump. At home, his snoring had caused his wife to flee to a separate bedroom. She slept there every night except his birthday, when the couple had sex “whether I needed it or not,” as The Human Computer would complain years later. “God blessed us with no children,” he said.

The wife went first, of course. You can have a job without a wife, but you can’t have a wife without a job. In the spring, he asked for a divorce. In the fall, he gave notice at the bank, then introduced himself to the only professional horseplayer he’d ever heard of: The Scholar, who taught a Saturday handicapping seminar at Arlington, and sold his speed figures to subscribers. A former community college dean, The Scholar had given up on academia, but not on teaching, gathering around him a racetrack agora he called “my merry band.” He wore a tie—the academic man’s symbol of authority—to distinguish himself from his followers, who dressed in snap-button windbreakers and plastic baseball caps given away on Hat Day. The Scholar knew he would win money from these men, no matter how many lessons they paid him for, because he possessed an unteachable quality: self-discipline. He had once sat on his big ass for two weeks, waiting for a good bet.

Racetrack odds are set by the gamblers, not the house, so the game isn’t about predicting the behavior of horses. It’s about predicting the behavior of other gamblers, and exploiting their mistakes.

On days when he felt discouraged, The Scholar would leave his third-floor aerie to walk among the gambling addicts—men who filled crimped aluminum ashtrays with cigarettes and drank bourbon from plastic cups. He would ask himself, “I can’t beat these guys?” And then he would go upstairs to win more money.

Impressed with The Human Computer’s spreadsheets, The Scholar helped him land a job as a handicapper for The Tip Sheet, a newsstand tout.

“You can’t live off your bets,” The Scholar advised him, or words to that effect. “You’ve got to have something on the side.”

The Tip Sheet assigned The Human Computer to handicap the Fair Grounds, a racetrack in New Orleans. The Human Computer had never been to New Orleans. But the horses there had four legs and ran on dirt. The Human Computer used The Scholar’s handicapping principles to pick 30-percent winners, a success rate that pleased his bosses.

As a gambler, though, The Human Computer was flailing. In his first two months as a pro, he lost $9,000—nearly half the bankroll he’d amassed by selling his stocks and cashing in his life insurance policy. Panicked, he stopped going to the track until he figured out what he was doing wrong: He decided he’d been too timid, betting horses to win and place. If you looked for horses just good enough to finish second, that’s what you found. He’d also neglected to write a horse’s speed figure next to its name in the Daily Racing Form. All horseplayers bring the biases of their old professions to the racetrack. As an IT professional, The Human Computer believed a horse could be reduced to an integer. After two weeks, he returned to the track, filled in his speed figures, and won back most of his nine large.

When I met The Human Computer, he was still handicapping for The Tip Sheet, and he still hadn’t mastered gambling.

The Scholar, the Human Computer, and I were interested in a horse named Keys to Astro. According to The Scholar’s speed figures, Keys to Astro was two or three lengths faster than the rest of the field. A horse that talented is likely to set off a bidding war. Keys to Astro opened at 6-5. The Scholar had an investment rule, which I’d learned to follow as well: Never bet a horse at less that 2-1. The risk isn’t worth the reward. It’s easy to follow when you go to the track every day, as The Scholar and I were doing. You can always wait for tomorrow’s 2-1 horse. But The Human Computer’s work interfered with his gambling; he couldn’t get to the track more than once a week.

When the track announcer intoned, “You have five minutes to wager,” Keys to Astro was still 6-5. The Human Computer folded his arms.

“I refuse,” he shouted at the speakers.

A moment later, The Human Computer was on his feet, heading for the betting machines.

“That’s what happens when you don’t go to the track every day,” The Scholar murmured.

“He’s too low for me to bet,” I said. “Are you betting him to win?”

“Yes, but don’t tell Scott.”

I watched the race with clenched shoulders. You have to root against a horse you considered betting but didn’t. My back didn’t relax until two horses passed Keys to Astro in the stretch.

Pittsburgh Phil, the original racetrack hustler, once declared that “a man who wishes to be successful cannot divide his attention between horses and women.” But ever since his divorce, The Human Computer dreamed of meeting a woman who loved horse racing—an Adelaide to his Nathan Detroit.

Bonnie was a petite brunette with her own horse racing website. She chain-smoked ladies’ cigarettes and drank bourbon with the horsemen at the first-floor bar. It was an immediate crush. One evening, The Human Computer took her to an after-the-races tavern catty-corner to the track. This did not ignite romance.

The Human Computer persisted. All the women at his Catholic Church disapproved of gambling. The next time Bonnie appeared at the track, The Human Computer deserted his computer, and lingered among her circle at the bar. That didn’t charm her, either. Worse, it cost him money. When he sat down behind his laptop again, he was moaning about a missed opportunity in the fifth race.

“The odds were great,” he said, “but I was too busy chasin’ tail to notice.”

The Human Computer lived alone, in a condo near a highway exit a mile from Arlington, and he worked alone, rising early to handicap five racetracks. In the summer, when horses ran at every track in America, The Human Computer handicapped until one in the morning. The schedule made his bachelorhood feral. He showered once a week, and emerged from behind his door only for the one-mile trip to Wendy’s, where he ordered tissue-wrapped double cheeseburgers and french fries in waxed cardboard cartons. He never lit the oven, even to heat TV dinners. His meals were sandwich-crème cookies, handfuls of M&Ms, and corned-beef hash spooned from a can that, scraped empty, was balanced atop a garbage bin that would only be emptied on his next trip to Wendy’s. Besides the computer, the only appliance in the apartment was a treadmill, which stood in the living room as a reminder of resolutions not kept. The Human Computer’s only other errand was to Walmart, where he bought pills for his diabetes. Life is too big a job for one person; The Human Computer showed the consequences of trying to do it alone.

Besides the racetrack, The Human Computer’s only social outlet was his church, where he volunteered as a lay reader once a month. There, finally, he met a woman.

“She used to be a doctor,” he explained to me one afternoon at Arlington. “She’s got two kids, so I’ve been helping her out. I drive her around when she needs to go someplace.”

That summer, whenever I spoke to The Human Computer, he had another complaint about the woman from church. She was pestering him for rides to the grocery. Then she asked him to help move furniture, so he rented a truck. Finally, she asked to borrow $500. The Human Computer gave her $500.

I never met this woman—The Human Computer never even told me her name—so I knew nothing about their relationship. I assumed it wasn’t romantic. One afternoon in the Rebel Enclave, The Human Computer blurted, “And then we can all be more sexually frustrated than we are already.” Did this woman see him as a mark? The Human Computer always smiled, and he liked to pun on the conversations around him. Once, The Scholar referred to someone as a “cross dresser.”

“What does that mean?” The Human Computer asked. “That he’s angry when he gets dressed?”

Like his perma-grin, the jokes were invitations, signals that a man who walked around in a biker’s body could be approached—wanted to be approached.

After I finished my book, I went to the track once a week. When it was published, I took off on a three-and-a-half month camping trip around the Great Lakes, which became the subject of another book. By the time I finally settled down again in Chicago, The Human Computer was in financial trouble.

His problems were partly the problems of the horse racing industry, passed down to its most meanly-paid employees. The Tip Sheet sold at newsstands and racetracks, and the two-dollar bettors who purchased it—the numbers players who believed horse racing was a game of luck, not skill—had migrated to the riverboat casinos, where admission was free, soft drinks were free, and they could bet on spinning wheels, or turning cards. The serious players downloaded programs on their computers.

Arlington had been built for the day that 45,000 attended the Breeders Cup, but on weekdays, it was as sparsely populated as the bleachers of a middle-school basketball game. The same 500 guys showed up every day, and they were dwindling like a brigade of Korean War veterans.

The Tip Sheet cut The Human Computer’s workload to three tracks, and stopped paying for his health insurance. If that had been The Human Computer’s only setback, he might have survived on his savings. But now he had a new leech in his life: Kenny, a neighbor’s nephew. Kenny was into The Human Computer for far more money than the church lady. The Human Computer had loaned Kenny money to start a business, and the kid hadn’t paid back a cent. In fact, he was always asking The Human Computer to pay for car repairs, or towing fees. When Kenny’s car broke down, The Human Computer loaned him his van. When Kenny didn’t return for two days, I heard about it.

“Chucklehead’s got the van,” The Human Computer sighed.

By the end of 2008, The Human Computer could no longer pay his mortgage. By the beginning of 2009, the bank began foreclosure proceedings. The Human Computer was so hard up for money he sold me a Sears dresser for $100. We carried it up to my third-floor apartment. The Human Computer sweated and panted and paused for breath on every landing. I wrote him a check, but he insisted we go to an ATM. He didn’t have a bank account, and personal checks were too hard to cash at a currency exchange.

“The Human Computer’s going to lose his place,” I told The Scholar.

“I know,” he said. “He wants to move in with you.”

“He wants to move in with me?”

“He saw that extra bedroom of yours.”

“How tidy is he?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never been over to his place.”

The Scholar returned to his program. He was already handicapping the next day’s card. The Scholar was not a sentimental man. He believed that most people’s troubles resulted from their own foolishness and lack of discipline. At the same time, he surrounded himself with losers. They validated his success in an endeavor that broke 98 percent of the men who attempted it. The Human Computer was perfect.

I didn’t want a roommate. I worked at home, using that extra bedroom as an office. It was the headquarters of the isolation I had built around myself. I’d written two books in there. By the end of 2009, I was finishing another and, as usual when I committed myself to a book, I was broke. Authorship is not lucrative, but there was no other work during the Great Recession, so I was thrilled to get a $22,000 advance for a project that would consume most of the year. By the fall, the money was almost gone, and I could see I wouldn’t be able to cover my $1,000-a-month rent that winter. The Human Computer would make a better roommate than a stranger. He wanted solitude as much as I did, so he’d go away as soon as he could afford it. We would ride out the recession in my apartment, and then go our separate ways. In September, I offered him the room.

“The bank is going to foreclose in December,” he said. He hadn’t paid his mortgage in over a year. “Can you wait that long?”

On Moving Day, the sky was bleak. Wisps of snow eddied over the highway crowns. I drove to the suburbs to pick up The Human Computer, because Kenny had the van.

“He said he was going to get the money he owes me,” The Human Computer explained. “He’s gonna bring it back here in plastic bag. I haven’t heard from him in two days.”

“He’s going to bring you money in a plastic bag?” I said. “How much did you lend him?”

“Ninety thousand dollars,” he confessed.

“Ninety thousand dollars?” I was flabbergasted. I had, at that time, less than two hundred dollars in my bank account. Ninety grand was a fortune as remote and unimaginable as the treasury of the Aga Khan. (A well-known horse breeder, by the way.) With that kind of money, I was sure I could sustain myself until I wrote a bestselling novel. “You lent him ninety thousand dollars?”

“Yeeaaahhh.”

It was a drawn-out confession, accompanied by a slumping of the neck that still didn’t make The Human Computer as short as he wanted to be. “He keeps telling me he’ll get it for me.”

The Human Computer was bringing nothing to my spare room but a bag of clothes, his computer, and his diabetes pills.

I was waiting on a check from a publisher, but until it arrived, I was so hard up that I couldn’t afford $100 to replace my busted modem. For the first month he lived with me, The Human Computer used free wi-fi at Starbucks. That got him out of the house, at least. My landlady ran the boiler high, and The Human Computer could not achieve the third floor without soaking his shirt. By Day Two of his tenancy, I realized that, for The Human Computer, cleanliness was next to godliness only in the sense that he observed each every seven days. At first, I held my breath when I walked past his room. He would wave at me through the slivered door, reclining on the couch like an otter, afloat in his own stench. Day by showerless day, the odoriferous zone expanded, spreading down the hallway until I could not sit on my living room couch without inhaling the stale air. I thought of leaving a bar of soap outside his door, but realized that passive-aggressiveness was a bachelor habit I’d have to give up. When my ex-fiancée had lived with me, I’d tried to deflect arguments by rolling over in bed. Maybe that was why she’d been replaced with a man three times her size. So I slipped a note under The Human Computer’s door. The next day, I ran into him in the kitchen, as he was fetching a jug of store-brand diet cola.

“Heyyy,” he said. “Yeaahh. I saw your note. I’m sorry. I get up early to work, and then the day just gets away from me. Will it wake you up if I take a shower at six in the morning?”

“Whatever you’ve gotta do,” I said.

The next morning at six, I was awoken by the hissing showerhead. Once The Human Computer was clean, I walked into the bathroom, just to breathe the fresh humidity.

At Christmastime, I left town to spend 10 days with my family. When I returned, just before New Year’s Day, I asked The Human Computer for his $500 share of the rent. He didn’t have it. While I’d been gone, Kenny had called, pleading another emergency.  The Human Computer took a train to the suburbs to lend him more money.

“This guy owes you ninety thousand dollars, and you give him more money?” I hated lecturing anyone. It’s one reason I ignored my mother’s advice to become a teacher. But I had to make the rent. The Human Computer hung his head.

“Sorry, Dad,” he said, in an artificially deep voice that mocked abashment, but still sounded abashed. “I’m getting paid next week. I promise I’ll have the money for you then.”

The Human Computer came up with the rent, but I was baffled by Kenny’s power over him. When I wasn’t around, The Human Computer raced to give the kid more money. Now that I was home, The Human Computer told me Kenny was calling countless times a day—even at three in the morning—but he was ignoring the number. I never heard a ringtone, but I figured The Human Computer kept his phone on vibrate.

The Human Computer and I had been forced together because of our need to organize our lives around independence and solitude. We didn’t want co-workers, we didn’t want or couldn’t handle wives. So instead we got…each other. Our lifestyles had been sustainable before the recession, but now we loners forced to pair up to pay the rent.

Writing and handicapping are both popular with those who would rather interpret the world than experience it. The same qualities that drew me to literature also drew me to horse racing. My angle was to combine the two, by writing about the track. I didn’t expect to make a living off the horses, but I was just as much of a dreamer, because I expected to make a living off books. A few years earlier, I’d blown most of the proceeds from a condo sale on that trip around the Great Lakes, and then took a year off to write about it. My publisher only sold the book in eight states and Ontario, and I never earned any royalties. I had gambled on my career, and I lost.

After the discussion about the shower, I hardly ever saw The Human Computer. He left the apartment once a week, to ride a bus to Wendy’s. I was aware of his presence only when he used the bathroom. It was next to my bedroom, so whenever I heard the door open, I put on my iPod, so I didn’t have to listen to The Human Computer pee.

When the Census form arrived, I listed The Human Computer as a boarder. My name was on the lease. That was the only thing separating my life from The Human Computer’s.

“He’s a friend who lost his place to foreclosure,” I explained to my neighbors. “I’m letting him stay with me until he gets back on his feet.”

We got through the winter that way. In the spring, The Human Computer took a bus to New Hampshire for a duckpin bowling tournament. I opened his room, following a cone of air freshener inside, to dissipate the heavy, fleshy odor of large man sealed inside an eight-by-twelve cell all winter. A few cans of Dinty Moore beef stew were piled on the floor next to his desk. He only visited the kitchen for cold soda. I ate a handful of M&Ms from a two-pound bag, then inspected the couch. Under the nightly pressure of The Human Computer’s 23 stone, two of the slats had cracked apart, fiber by fiber, until finally they had snapped—my $400 Jennifer Convertible, crushed to death by an overaccumulation of store-brand cola and Wendy’s double cheeseburgers.

By April, I had a job that paid enough to cover the rent, and I’d been hired as a census enumerator. The Human Computer was handicapping more tracks for The Tip Sheet. Our recessions were over. The Human Computer found a one-bedroom apartment in a converted resort hotel on the lakefront. It was the first time he’d ever lived in the city. He had no choice, because his van had broken down.

“There are a lot of beautiful young women here,” he told me, a few weeks after I helped him move his stuff. “Unfortunately, I’m their fathers’ age, and I don’t have their fathers’ money.”

The next time I saw The Scholar at the track, I told his wife, Cindy, about The Human Computer’s money problems. She already knew.

“He loaned this kid $90,000,” I said, “and the kid never paid him back.”

“You know, that’s what he told me,” Cindy said, “but I’ve never met that guy. I don’t even think he exists.”

I’d never met Kenny, either. Never saw him, never heard the phone ring on the nights The Human Computer said he called. But because I knew The Human Computer, knew he would do anything to make friends, I had believed that he’d given his life savings to a 21-year-old he scarcely knew. Did he think this was more likely to win my sympathy than admitting he’d gambled away his condo? I would have respected that more.

And if The Human Computer had really lost all his money on the horses, that only meant he’d failed at his lifelong ambition: becoming a big-time gambler. I needed a roommate because I’d gone broke pursuing my ambition: writing books. From both a moral and a financial standpoint, I was in no position to judge.

The Human Computer moved out more than two years ago. He’s paying the rent on his new apartment, which has a computer room next to the gym, so he can do his handicapping and ogle young women at the same time. There’s a park nearby, where he practices duckpin bowling, and a supermarket across the street, so he only has to ride the bus to eat at Wendy’s, or go to the track. I don’t talk to him much—I think we’re both embarrassed that, as men in our 40s, we were forced to live with a roommate.

But when I do see him, I never ask about Kenny.

Postscript: The Human Computer finally paid me back for breaking the couch. I ran into him at the OTB on Belmont Day last weekend. After the race was over, he slipped a ticket out of his wallet and showed it to me: $500 to win on Union Rags. He’d also bet $20 on the exacta, for a total profit of $1,600 on the race.

“He ran his final quarter mile in the Derby in 24 seconds,” The Human Computer said, when I asked him why he’d picked that horse. “That’s an angle I learned a long time ago, from a gambler who’s dead now. I saw the fractions of the race on the Daily Racing Form’s Formulator PPs.”

I’d bet $2 on Dullahan, because I’d liked his rally for third place in the Derby. It turned out Dullahan had only run his final quarter in 26 seconds. But his finish looked more impressive because he wasn’t as far back in the field. I could not out-handicap a man who handicaps for a living. But I profited from his savvy.

“I got a new leather couch for $800,” I said. “But that’s not really fair. The old couch was $400.”

“Open your shirt pocket.”

I did, and The Human Computer stuffed two hundred bills inside.

“That should take care of some of it.”

His timing was good. I’d been hit with some unexpected expenses—a tooth filling and a new $220 car key—and payday was a week away. Damned if The Human Computer didn’t have a knack for showing up with cash at just the right times in my life. And damned if he doesn’t know how to gamble.

*     *     *     *     *

EDWARD McCLELLAND is the author of “Horseplayers: Life at the Track.”

STORY ART: Main image made in-house with photo of carousel horses courtesy Arlington County/cc; photo of Arlington Park courtesy mlabowicz/cc; photo of Belmont ticket booths courtesy JGNY/cc; Photo of Arlington Park sculpture “Against All Odds” courtesy AP Photo/Charles Rex Aborgast; and scrim of carousel horses from AP Photo/Mark Lennihan.)

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