The night after the Super Bowl, the regular meeting of the Beverly Hills chapter of Gamblers Anonymous was in session. Robert G., Benni, Robert F. and Clifford had watched but not bet as Denver dismantled Atlanta, although for Robert F., not having any action on the game was the result of only a nine-day gambling abstention.
"The hardest nine days of my life," he said.
When he lived in another part of the country, Robert F. once owed so much that he had to go to work for his illegal bookie to work off the debt. He became a bagman for seven months, carrying around as much as $70,000 in cash for delivery, looking over his shoulder with every step.
"Last Saturday, I got a call from one of my so-called friends," Robert F. said. "He wanted to talk about Jamal Anderson [Atlanta's star running back], and this player and that player, and how to bet the game. Socially, you come to realize that this is what you do when you're betting, having a couple of beers and having conversations like this. It's about all you talk about. That's the part that's going to be real tough."
Estimates of the betting on this year's Super Bowl, by the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey, are up to $4 billion, although Roxy Roxborough of Las Vegas Sports Consultants says it's impossible to gauge the figure, what with office pools, side bets among friends, Larry Flynt's action alone.
What Roxborough knows for sure is that in Nevada, the only state where sports betting is legal, Super Bowl business will surpass the $80-million mark, breaking last year's record. For the record, early surveys indicate that the Nevada books might only break even, because of heavy betting on the Broncos, who not only won but won 34-19, thereby "covering the spread." The Atlanta Falcons were underdogs by seven or 7 1/2 points, depending on when and where a bet was placed.
Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine, may be able to afford his football-betting inclinations, but many people can't. Flynt told Los Angeles magazine that he cashed a $25,000 bet on Denver against Green Bay in last year's Super Bowl.
"It's no fun watching without having a bet down," he said.
On last year's Super Bowl, there was a $500,000 winning bet placed in Las Vegas.
Three years ago, another Robert--Robert G.--bet $300 on the Super Bowl, not a huge sum. But for him the act of betting was a crushing breach of a catharsis that went back to 1994.
"I had been in Gamblers Anonymous for about two years," he said. "I won the bet, but I was sick the rest of the day. I didn't do any more betting, but I was ashamed. I couldn't go to another meeting for two months."
One bet--the same as one drink for an alcoholic--is all it takes for a compulsive gambler to fall back into the pit.
For Marc, a transplanted New Yorker who lives in south Orange County, it is tempting to bet again because he's a lifelong New York Jet fan and the Jets are good again.
For Robert G., what triggered that $300 Super Bowl bet was a business meeting in Dallas, where a loutish Dallas Cowboys' fan was belittling the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team Robert G. grew up with in his native Pennsylvania.
At his worst, Robert G. was $150,000 in hock on his credit cards and owed another $25,000 in loans that he had taken out to keep the credit cards afloat.
"I went to Penn State, which has turned out all those good football players," he said. "I've got scars up and down my back, and I've never played one game."
When he was dating, Robert G. would hide in his shower with a cell phone to call in bets, so his girlfriends wouldn't know. Now, at 48, he is married, his pregnant wife overdue with their first child.
"I was hoping it would come [last week]," he said. "I wanted the baby to be born on my [non-gambling] anniversary day."
Nevada sports books have abandoned the bet on the Super Bowl's pregame coin toss--after a referee botched a toss before overtime of a regular-season NFL game, this was probably a good idea--but there were still hundreds of "proposition" bets available. There was even a bet on which would be higher, a wide receiver's yardage in the game or a pro golfer's score in a tournament the same day.
"It's stupid," Robert G. said. "The outcome of the bet becomes more important than the outcome of the game. People that bet the Super Bowl, most of them, don't really know football. Out of every 1,000 people that bet the game, 999 of them wouldn't be able to name one offensive lineman on either team."
Thirty years ago, Ed Looney had six kids, was bankrupt, had gone through every dollar his father had saved and was being hounded by loan sharks. He and his wife thought about suicide. Today, Looney is executive director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling of New Jersey.
"I haven't made a bet for 30 years," Looney said. "Gambling has been called an impulse, a controlled disorder, but what it boils down to is that this is just another addiction.