Tony McCoy found his bookie through a friend of a friend. It was October 2011, four weeks into football season. He’d spent all of last season testing a new betting system he’d created, and it had proven sound. Now he was ready to put money on it. He’d never had a bookie before, never spoken to one on the phone. He figured there would be rules, but he didn’t know what they were. Before he made the call, he wrote out all the bets he wanted for the week, four in total, and gave himself a pep talk. People do this all the time, he thought.
It didn’t help his nerves.
“It was crossing a line,” he tells me.
It’s a Sunday afternoon at the McCoy family home, where the living room is cluttered with Legos, coloring books, and other kiddie toys. Tony’s wife Jen and their two-year-old son are doing a puzzle on the floor. Tony and I sit at a round oak table a few feet away. While he talks to me, his gaze remains mostly on the 49ers/Giants game playing on a wall-mounted flat screen. Tony has money on San Francisco.
During a commercial for Allstate Insurance, he looks in my direction. “Technically,” he says, “it’s all illegal. Playing poker online, betting your friend 20 bucks at work — it’s all illegal. Betting with a bookie, though, was a line I didn’t want to cross. But I just finally said, ‘Aw, screw it.’ And I called him.”
Tony locked himself in the upstairs bathroom to make the call. He turned on the bathroom fan to drown out his son’s playful shrieks and the sound of his wife reprimanding the boy for jumping off the couch.
“The guy answers the phone right away,” Tony says. “He sounds exactly like you would expect a bookie to sound, like a cranky old Italian guy with one of those newsboy caps.”
The conversation went as follows:
Tony: “A friend of mine said I should call you.”
Bookie: “All right.”
Tony: “Yeah, my friend Steve.”
Bookie: “Who’s that?”
Tony: “Steve. He said he knows you pretty good.”
Bookie: “What’s his last name?”
Tony: “Brown. Steve Brown.”
Bookie: “White guy? Kinda tall?”
Tony: “Right, right. That’s him.”
Bookie: “All right, I know him. But who are you?”
Tony: “I’m a friend of his.”
Bookie: “What kind of friend?”
Tony: “Uh, pretty good friends, I guess.”
Bookie: “Have you met him?”
Tony: “Who? Steve? Well, yeah, I’ve met him.”
Bookie: “You play poker with him?”
Tony: “No, I never played poker with him, but I know he plays.”
Bookie: “All right, well, what do you want?”
Tony: “Um, Steve tells me you might be able to help me out for this Sunday.”
Bookie: “What about Sunday?”
Tony: “Well, I’m looking to, uh, bet on a game on Sunday.”
Bookie: “And you’re Steve’s friend, huh?”
Bookie: “You been knowing him a long time?”
Tony: “Yeah, I guess so.”
Bookie: “Well, he’s okay, so I guess you’re all right. Tell him what you want, then give him the money, and he’ll call me.”
Tony did as the bookie instructed, driving to Steve’s house in North Park to drop off the envelope with $220 cash (including $20 in “juice” — a commission paid to bookies for losing bets). His picks were written on the outside.
“I had $50 each on Washington plus-one over St. Louis, Kansas City plus-three over Minnesota, and Tennessee plus-one over Cleveland. Plus a $50 parlay on all three games. The parlay pays six to one, but you have to win all three games to win the bet. All together, I had $200 on the line. Get this — Steve actually laughed at my picks. I can’t say I blamed him, because, honestly, I didn’t like the picks all that much myself. The system liked them, though, and that’s what counts. Steve doesn’t pick games any better than I do.”
Sunday came. Tony won all three games.
“Steve doesn’t laugh at me anymore,” he says.
The bookie settles up with clients on Tuesdays. So on Tuesday, October 4, Tony followed the bookie’s directions to an Arby’s parking lot in Oceanside. He figured the guy wouldn’t be too happy about having to hand over so much cash at their first meeting. Jen, on the other hand, was more worried about the sketchy nature of the meet-up.
“An Arby’s parking lot?” she says, looking up at us from her spot on the floor. “I was afraid he’d get jumped or something. I don’t know.”
Tony laughs. “It wasn’t anything like that.”
The bookie turned out to be a shabby, pale man sporting a comb-over and a pair of ill-fitting slacks. The two shook hands. The bookie pulled a roll of bills from his pocket, peeling off four one-hundred dollar bills, two twenties, and a ten. If the bookie was bothered by having to pay out that amount, it didn’t show. Tony wondered if the bookie was a middleman, if maybe someone scarier would come along in the event you didn’t pay up. This guy didn’t appear to be the kind who would, or could, break your legs.
“Not that I’ll ever know,” Tony says. “I never bet what I don’t have.”
Over the next six weeks, Tony won $90, won $150, lost $30, won $90, won $25, and lost $15. At the start of this week’s games, he’s up $690, not including the $220 he started with. So, the money he has on the line this weekend is all profit.
Even so, he says, “Every time I win, I’m surprised. But I really do think it’s a good system.”
∗ ∗ ∗
The whole thing started with the promise of a trip to Italy for Tony and Jen’s tenth anniversary. Something they’ve been dreaming about since they were first married. Seven years later, they found themselves with only three years to save for a $10,000 trip.
“Personally, I like to gamble,” Tony says. “It’s fun. But it also helps to have a goal. When I was playing online poker a few years ago, I told my wife that anything I win, we’re going to Italy with it.”