THE SCENE is familiar. It has flashed across scores of movies screens and thousands of television commercials for racetracks or other legal gambling enterprises. In the tableau, a sport fan clutches a betting ticket in a trembling fist and screams his or her head off to encourage a horse or some other vehicle to imagined riches. Often entire groups of fans behave in this manner. When victory is achieved, they are depicted in various embraces, dances or other noisy manifestations of the ecstasy derived from turning a $2 bet into $13.20.
At the risk of sounding like a spoil-sport, I am compelled to argue that such celebrations are unacceptable. To the purest guardians of gambling etiquette, the unbridled racetrack rooter or the $25 football bettor who disrupts a saloon at the sight of a blocked field goal is more than a bore. He is tampering with the tranquility of delicate psyches and ravaging a noble, time-honored code of conduct. He who would scream over a $13.20 payoff would drink from Amy Vanderbilt's finger bowl.
This matter was brought sharply into focus at this year's Hialeah meeting, when a betting neophyte became almost berserk at the prospect of cashing a perfecta worth $42. The performance was an affront to tract regulars Andy Beyer and Jim Packer. With several thousand dollars worth of losing tickets lying heavily in their pockets, Beyer and Packer called a hasty meeting of a de facto committee on etiquette. Within minutes, that August gathering brought forth an historic document that is now hailed as "The Beyer Law of Rooting."
"You are allowed to root decorously and cheer moderately when your winnings are enough to cover a dinner for four at Joe's Stone Crab," the rule proclaimed. "But you are not allowed to leave your feet, drop to your knees or scream 'I'm King of the World' -- unless the score you make is equal to one-tenth of your annual income."
Beyer, The Washington Post's columnist and the world's horseplayer, has long been a pioneer. He has developed his speed ratings or "figures" (he calls them "figs") to the point where he can frequently yell that he is the King of the World -- and stay within his own guidelines. But his contribution to gambling etiquette may be just as historic as his handicapping. His code of proper gambling manners is long overdue.
Gambling is a lonely game played in large groups. Before and after betting on a team or a race, the gambler may exchange ideas or share emotions with scores of people; yet his decision -- and the financial consequences -- are his own responsibilities. This situation cries for some standard: What should people say and how should they act? Until Beyer and the Philadelphia-based bon-vivant Packer took action, gamblers enjoyed only the vaguest, word-of-mouth hints about etiquette. The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette is almost 900 pages long. It is invaluable if you need to know where to buy a new coat of arms or what to wear to your next audience with the Pope. But it devotes not a single sentence to how to address a losing jockey or how to commiserate with a loved one who's just blown a Super Bowl bet by half a point.
In the spirit of Beyer and Packer, I would like to contribute a few more guidelines to the etiquette of gambling. Just as Amy Vanderbilt dwells on communication by letter-writing and invitations-sending, I would like to start with two basic modes of communication among gamblers -- advice and abuse.
If you are a casual visitor to a racetrack, it is permissible to ask more experienced acquaintances for advice. As regulars and serious students of the game, they may save you time and money by revealing that the track is the fastest along the inside rail or that the favorite in the feature race has been warming up lame. They may offer opinion about specific horses to watch. It is important to remember that the giver has spent his own time -- and possibly his money -- to acquire the information he is imparting to you free of charge. So it is not good etiquette to accept the fruits of his work and reply, "How the hell could you like this horse?" And it is unforgivably rude, if he gives you a winnter, to wave your tickets and exult, "We sure picked that one."
In the general exchange of ideas, on type of gambler is noteworthy. I call him the barnacle. He wanders into a track with no preparation, glances fleetingly at this Racing Form, asks what everyone else is thinking. Barnacle-like, he fastens himself to the aircraft carriers of the sport and rides along to victory.
If the barnacle is lucky, a Beyer night mention an outstanding "fig" horse. Then the barnacle scurries to the "beaders" -- who specialize in "drawing a bead" on horses in post parade and judging which are sound or lame. Perhaps they will give him another horse. Then he might try a mutuel clerk who knows where the smart money is going, and perhaps a computer expert who gleans a different angle from his printouts. After this, the barnacle goes to the perfecta window and purchases every comination based on the experts' selections. Occasionally, the experts will miss the perfecta but the barnacle will hit it. Then he feigns wonderment and flashes his ticket at a guy who has helped him and still lost. "You liked that winner," he says with mock sympathy. "How come you didn't have this one?" This is not a breach of etiquette in the finger bowl category. The barnacle would have urinated in the halls of Versailles.
The counterpoint to advice is the ritual of abuse. It is permissible to abuse a barnacle. In fact, death by thrashing with multiple sets of heavy binoculars would not be improper manners, an no jury of gambling peers would convict the perpetrators. The First Rule of Abuse: The amount of investive heaped upon a fellow bettor should be in direct proportion to the amount he is winning. When a guy is bellowing that he is King of the World or recounting how he swept Pete Rozelle's schedule for a weekend, you are entitled to remind him in the most vicious terms of the lucky photo finishes he won or the zebra errors that whistled in his direction. When a bettor is losing, silence is preferred. A loser never has to be reminded that he had just made a stupid play. His bankroll is eloquent enough.
Similarly, it is bad form to abuse a jockey. It is in especially bad taste, after a star has lost on a favorite, to remind him that grand juries in several state are looking into race-fixing charges. At most, a thoughtful bettor should stand in the paddock near the jockey's quarters and suggest to a returning rider, "The rail is the place to be. Too bad you got forced so wide."
Gloating is another sensitive issue. It can be treated under the law of rooting: If you win enough, go ahead and shout about it. But premature gloating is never allowable. I am sad to relate that this form has sometimes been practiced by the usually sensible Beyer himself. During the NCAA tournament, Andy and I both had good bets on Georgetown against Iowa. We were ahead by 14 points when Georgetown Coach John Thompson asked his clearly superior team to slow down. Soon our lead shrunk to four. I called Beyer and said that I was worried. "This game," he replied, "is completely under control." It was, at the end. By Iowa.
A far more egregious felony is the premature third party gloat. This occurs when you bet on a 40-1 shot that is five lengths in front at the sixteenth pole, and the guy next to you says, "He can't lose now. You're home." What he is really thinking is: "I didn't bet on this son of a bitch, and I hope I'll jinx him, because if I can't win, I don't want anybody else to win." This is the same type who assures you that your three-touchdown, fourth-period lead makes you a cinch -- when he knows as well as you do that your coach is busily devising a prevent defense that will somehow manage to blow the point spread. The worst thing about the premature third party gloater is that his ploy almost always works. Once words like "cinch" have been uttered, 40-1 shots dagger into rails and prevent defenses yield touchdowns so fast that heads are spinning.
The matter of jinxing brings up an important theme of gambling etiquette. Serious gamblers, by definition, try to removed as much blind luck as possible from their ventures. They shy away from overt talk of superstition. Yet every veteran bettor can recall when he figured out every ratinal angle of a sports event, only to lose to an unforeseeable act of nature -- human or otherwise. So at some deep level, gamblers must recognize the necessity of luck.
This leads to a kind of mythology. Just as the Greeks or Romans looked to certain dieties for strength or speed or health, gamblers hope that their own gods will smile on their technical foul calls and holding penalties. The Goddess of Wagering must be appeased, soothed, tithed. She must never be affronted by statements hinting that a gambler has taken fate in his own firm grip. The premature gloater almost always gets punished. The excessive rooter is eventually stilled. The purveyor of certainty suddenly finds that his rent is a matter of doubt. And the bettor who claims to have everything under control is plunged into chaos. Just as Amy Vanderbilt advises women not to wear sun dresses or shorts to papal audiences, gambling etiquette warns against flaunting gaudy, ostentatious winner's garb in the presence of the Goddess.
One minor milestone in gambling history may place the etiquette of communications in clearer focus. Years ago, a kid stood at an Aqueduct clubhouse closed-circuit television monitor, cheering wildly as the second half of his daily double crossed the finish line. "How long has this been going on?" he yelled. "This is an easy game."
Harvey Pack, a master of abuse and advice, watched the winner bolt to the cashier's windown and called after him: "Have a good life, kid."
The young man, known to all of us as Good Life from then on, was last seen in a scruffy corner of the grandstand. He was stopping old acquaintances and begging them to rub their clubhouse hand-stamps onto his own hand. He could not afford the clubhouse admission.
This strikes me as about the closest thing to a parable of racing behavior. In his innocence, the youth had violated gloating rules and angered the Goddess. In his cynicism, Pack had fired off some creative abuse. Good Life has paid dearly for his impetuous outburst. Pack has not only survived but emerged as a trusted employee of the New York Racing Association. I am not prepared to say whether the Goddess has given Harvey a reward or punishment.
But a parable that is too easy to figure out would be about as much fun as a one-horse race. My friends and I can offer only general guidelines to gambling etiquette. In arriving at your own codes of rooting or gloating, advising or abusing, you can only try to act in a manner that will offend neither your friends nor the Goddess. If you manage that, you will earn respect from true gamblers and tolerance from the Goddess. And with those two edges, you might just have a good life, kid. t