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Roeper's Games

On March 28, the Sun-Times published an excerpt of columnist Richard Roeper's then-forthcoming book, Bet The House: How I Gambled Over a Grand a Day for 30 Days on Sports, Poker, and Games of Chance.

"I've been on a professional lucky streak for nearly my entire career - something I try to remember always," Roeper wrote. "Sometimes I get irritated when people say, 'Must be nice to watch movies for a living." [I want] to sit down with these people and tell them about all the hours I put in doing behind-the-scenes work. I want to invite them to watch crappy movie after crappy movie in a dark screening room in the middle of the day. I'd like to explain to them the challenge isn't writing A column, it's writing a column every day, four or five times a week, for 20 years. I'd like to make them understand that between the column and the blog and the Twittering and the Facebooking, the book projects and the TV show I'm trying to put together, the meetings and the screenings and the appearances and the speeches and the guest shots on radio and TV, it feels like I'm never not working.

"And then I realize I should shut the f*ck up."

When a columnist and his accomplice newspaper write this sort of self-referential claptrap, two things are immediately obvious from the reader-columnist transaction.

First, under no circumstances in this space time continuum is this writer ever going to "shut the f*ck up" or even "shut the fuck up." Because that might require some period of quiet self-reflection and introspection which we all know is a waste.

Second, we owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Sun-Times for saving us from that awful word with the cleverly prophylactic "f*ck", a collection of letters than essentially cannot be pronounced in any other way than "fuck."

Let's all have a group wink-wink, say-no-more moment of self-recognition here.

As a writer, Roeper is a cheap date who occasionally delivers, and I sincerely hope that cheap dates don't take offense at being lumped in with Roeper. The thinking-to-drivel ratio on his Sun-Times work is about one in 10, which might be a function of being stretched too thin in The Roeper Media Empire. Thinking takes time. Glibness is not a counterweight to insight.

In this media landscape, maybe we shouldn't complain because, after all, we are the ones who put up with it.

But I digress.

Only because I have a passing interest in gambling (though no skill), I read the book as a community service on the off chance it was a whiz-bang potboiler that no one should miss. Maybe I could send a "must-read" message to my friends and relatives.

Not so much.

Indeed, this book mostly is like everything that Roeper writes, which means words sometimes resonate with tinny clanging and cheap puns that are not even awful enough to be fun.

But mostly, he defies the one element of serious gambling that I know to be true because I have seen it up close and frontally. Real gambling is exciting and exhilarating at a cellular level because it is perilous. That's why it becomes a compelling addiction.

Yet, against all odds (a Roeper-style pun), Richard Roeper has managed to take a modest amount of money in real gambler terms, pretend that gambling at a $1,000-a-day clip for a month is high drama, and produce a treatise that is incomprehensibly, thuddingly dull.

Or maybe it's only that Roeper is dull. He even announces that if he wins, he'll give some of the proceeds to charity, which immediately characterizes this as a sham. No one who legitimately gambles is going to give anything away, because it's hard work. Also, he's too cheap even to go all in.

So, he flips coins, bets the NCAAs, plunges on any form of gambling that a bookie can broker and even takes a trip up to Kenosha for a day with the dogs.

To all of this, Roeper doesn't ever seem emotionally welded enough to the topic or the people embedded in it for him to notice that the entire premise is cheesy. People are losing their homes and their jobs and Roeper's societal impulse as a writer is to pretend he's a gambler.

If you have enough time with Google, you can find out every fact Roeper apparently knows about real gambling.

For example, if the crowd at Dairyland Dog Track was 300 on the day he attended, and Roeper kept making $100 bets to win, it's that very bet that changed the pari-mutuel odds. He turned dogs into favorites. He wasn't the observer of any phenomenon. He was the cause of it.

In another passage, he rattles off the blackjack sequence in several dozen deals. It's like sitting with your kid and playing "War" for an hour.

If the concept of this book makes some sense, there are better ones. In fact, former Wall Street Journal reporter Andres Martinez did a better one on the exact same premise (24/7: Living It Up and Doubling Down in the New Las Vegas) with $50,000 and five weeks in Vegas. It's as superficial as Roeper's try, but at least it's frantic and lunatic in equal measure. Or maybe Michael Craig's The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of All Time.

Or consider this:

In 1968 or so, I was allowed into a bar in Johnston City, Ill., where Rudolph Wanderone, the real Minnesota Fats, was testing Hubert "Daddy Warbucks" Cokes, in a game of eight-ball. Before the feds shut it down some years later, the annual soirees in Johnston City were quite the resplendent gambling summits. I learned to drink good Scotch neat in Johnston City.

I had grown up at a local newspaper in Evansville, Ind., and one of my regular over-the-phone sports department duties was supplying Hubert with his daily fix of horse race results off the clanking wire machine in our office. I was pretty sure what he was doing was illegal, and what I was doing was similarly risky. But Hubert had once shot a man in his Evansville home and was rumored to have gotten away with homicide because the man "accidentally" bled to death before an ambulance got there. So I decided that it was better for Hubert to be my friend than my enemy.

For six hours, Hubert and Fats played for $1,000 a ball. Everyone in the room - except for me because I was a kid and too poor to be flamboyant - gambled feverishly.

As memory serves, Hubert was a big winner. Hubert and Fats both sweated like farm animals for the entire six hours. Fats never stopped talking, and Hubert launched the evening by handing his shoulder holster and .38 Smith & Wesson to his driver.

For real people who bet enough to expose themselves to both thrill and heartache, gambling is work. Gambling without real risk is a joke. Hubert and Fats weren't joking.

The difference, one supposes, is whether investment in a book about gambling should reflect a desire to understand more about human peril, if not humanity. Even dilettantes like Roeper should have some higher goal.

But what do I know? Maybe I should just shut the f*ck up.

-

David Rutter is the former publisher/editor of the Lake County News-Sun, a Sun-Times Media property. He welcomes your comments.

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Also by David Rutter:
* The Lords of Ireland.

* Speaking of Notre Dame . . .

* Scheduling Notre Dame.

* Spade Robs Farley's Grave.

* Gov. Fester.

* Black Talks, Zell Walks.



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Posted on May 21, 2010


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