Hunter is missed more during football season than other time of the year, at least by my brother Drew and I, if not by scores of others who were lucky enough to watch and bet on the games in the kitchen of Owl Farm over the years. When I released the first of my four films about Hunter – Breakfast with Hunter – an interviewer asked me “What did you learn from all that time you spent with Dr. Thompson.”
“He taught me how to gamble,” I replied, without even thinking about it.
Those were expensive lessons in the beginning. One Sunday, Hunter got me going worse than Harvey Keitel in The Bad Lieutenant who cineastes will remember kept doubling down on successive games in the World Series on his way to death. For me, a mild losing streak on the early games that Sunday, turned into a total disaster as I kept doubling down and losing every bet. By the end of the evening game my debt to Hunter was $800. It never occurred to me that I would not pay. I just didn’t have the money. Fortunately, my brother bailed me out.
Hunter had closely studied the habits of amateur gamblers, as he wrote in his “Hey Rube” column for ESPN.com in December, 2001 called “Skunks Like Me.”
The Holiday season is always a bad time of year for amateur gambling addicts. They are weak people, as a rule, and they are not built for grueling long-distance work….Gambling losses that seemed harmless in October have swollen out of control when Christmas rolls around. The math is working against you and Doom and Disaster have taken on a personal meaning….I know these things from many years of close personal association, to put it gently, with the Debt Collection business.
Hunter told me that one football season, when he had little money, he got so deeply in debt to a Bookie that he saw no way out.
The time has come, the Walrus said, to talk of brutal things; of broken legs and shattered dreams, of bleeding eyes and whores….(also from “Skunks like me” and note the usual reference to “whores” as in my latest film about Hunter Animals, Whores & Dialogue)
But the Bookie had a backup plan for Hunter. They always do. The Bookie explained that he and his “friends” had scheduled Hunter on a lecture tour (one of the ways Hunter supported himself in the 70′s and 80′s, as did Mark Twain). All Hunter had to do was get up in time for the show and the Bookie and his friends would take care of everything else: food, lodging, limos and, most importantly, the lecture fees which they kept. Hunter said it was the most well organized tour he ever did and the only one where he showed up on time for every lecture.
While gambling was the fuel that drove the scene during football games at Owl Farm, the experience transcended money. The betting made you pay attention to the game and created an atmosphere of fun – the same kind of fun that kids were looking for, as Hunter’s Mother reported, when they hung on his front porch in Louisville for hours, waiting for him to come out and play when he was just six years old.
The usual game bet was twenty bucks with point spreads negotiated with individual bettors by Hunter. You had to beware of divulging the spread he gave you when a new rube came in the room, or suffer serious abuse. Side bets provided the real action and they could be on anything and in any amount. And, the “action” was the real attraction for us all, not the money.
The basic pre-game bets are more like the price of admission to the back room of a very exclusive fight club than a casual invitation to “watch the game at a friendly neighbor’s house.
The side bet action is modeled roughly on the rules that apply in any cockfighting arena. Wagers are offered out loud to all parties, and accepted with a nod of the head or a recognizable hand signal by anyone in the room with cash.from “Skunks like Me”
The only house advantage for Hunter was that he won all “pushes” where the bet came out even between the two parties. We all figured that was more than fair, since he provided a well-stocked venue with an endless supply of beer in the refrigerator and bottles of every imaginable whiskey on top.
Given all the filming I did in the kitchen of Owl Farm over the years, it’s surprising that I only shot one football game, but I guess I was just having too much fun. Super Bowl Sunday in 2002 appears in Breakfast with Hunter. Hunter’s lawyer friends were invited, and he put signs on all the good chairs saying “Bettors Only.” He let me film for a few minutes, and then asked me to quit. Football and betting were more important than possibly squirreling the mood with my two cameras. Nevertheless the short scene does give you a feel for the room.
Ironically, at half-time Hunter started lobbying the lawyers to help him free Lisl Auman from a life sentence without parole (see my film Free Lisl: Fear & Loathing in Denver). Invitations to Owl Farm during football season were highly coveted, especially by lawyers. It was truly a symbiotic relationship. They all loved to imagine they might be the new Dr. Gonzo – lawyer Oscar Acosta in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas – and Hunter was a connoisseur of the trade due to his lifestyle. It was always a matter of when he would need a lawyer, not whether or not he might need one. I still have a laminated card in the back of my wallet that Anita made up for emergencies with the bedside numbers of every lawyer in this scene.
But the lawyers were not the best bettors, certainly not on a level with my brother Drew who Hunter truly loved. Drew is a paraplegic and when he would come to visit me for Christmas he would bring a foldout metal ramp in the back of his pickup that we would install for the season on Hunter’s front steps. That way if I couldn’t make it, Drew could always get into the kitchen on his own to gamble with Hunter. We appear first as characters in “Skunks Like Me.”
My winnings on the first two games were so gratifying that I swelled up with hubris and disregarded my own rules and fell into boozing and babbling. Two brothers from South Carolina lured me into getting so greedy that I went against my previous bets on the Baltimore game by doubling up on both teams at different point spreads.
That is called a Middle, and it is very risky business.
We beat him that Sunday night and “pranced around like Peacocks” in the first draft of the column (which was true), but by the time it went to press we had made him “the butt of degrading jokes.” (which was not true)
But not for long. Ho ho. Those same two evil bastards came back Monday night for the Rams- Saints game, and I beat them like gongs. They lost everything and I loved it. So let this be a lesson to weaklings who cave in to their Gambling jones. Do Not Double Up. That is all ye know and all ye need to know.
That is what I learned from Hunter – how to gamble, and more importantly, how to have fun with your friends while watching twenty-two men wage warfare over a pigskin. The last couple of years I probably broke even, and might even have made a bit of money betting on football with Hunter. The last time my brother and I spent an evening with Hunter was during the playoffs in 2005 a little more than a month before he killed himself.
The suicide note that Hunter left open in his spiral notebook on the counter had the heading “Football Season is Over.” Unfortunately, he was right for the short play, but terribly wrong at long yardage. There will always be another Football Season.
This Monday night it’s Green Bay minus 3 at Chicago. I’m taking Green Bay, Hunter.