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Patrick Hruby

The Gambler

Confessions of a sports betting junkie

On a good day, he'll grab a bite at the sandwich shop. Maybe even go out for a drink. On a really good day, he won't bother. Not when there's money on the table. And not when he's riding a hot streak. On any given Saturday, more than a hundred college football teams take the field - a coast-to-coast buffet of injured stars, crummy coaches, inflated point spreads. He might have action on a half-dozen.

If that's the case, forget dinner. Breakfast is a stretch.

"Watching a full day of football isn't easy," he says. "There's a Subway like walking distance from my house. Five minutes. If I go there, I'm doing good. I usually eat a lot of Chunky Soup."

Call him KJ. He's 35, single and lives in Northern Virginia. He works as a consultant for the federal government and plays pickup basketball at a local gym. Over the last four years, KJ estimates, he's gambled away $100,000. Some of it on high-stakes poker. Most of it on sports.

"If I didn't bet, I'd have probably paid my mortgage by now," he says with a sigh.

KJ has wagered on the dramatic [the New York-Boston American League Championship Series]. The mundane [early season Nets-Pacers]. The downright foolhardy [hockey]. He's bet against his beloved Washington Redskins - with great success, he says - and put money on the second half of a Maryland football game. In a single week, he's won as much as $3,700 - and lost more than double that amount. He knows four bookies, one of them since college.

Sometimes, KJ takes in sports while running at the gym. More than once, he admits, he's gotten so wrapped up in the action on screen - and his action on the side - that he's fallen off his treadmill.

And that's when his team is winning.

"You're watching Central Florida against Toledo like it's a big deal, hanging on every last play," KJ says. "And people are wondering, 'What is going on with this guy?'"

Lost weekends

He lives in a red brick house in Herndon, just off the Dulles Toll Road. Inside, his place is clean, decorated with the accouterments of bachelorhood: A big-screen TV, a barbell, a framed headline of Maryland's college basketball championship, a lonely looking ab roller.

Outside, dead leaves blanket his front yard, spilling across the sidewalk and over the curb. Look around: It's the only yard in the neighborhood that hasn't been cleared and bagged.

"Somebody's going to rake it," KJ says, scooping up branches that have accumulated by his front door. "It won't be me."

Certainly not. Football beckons. If KJ has a hunch, he will bet the Thursday and Friday night college games. Otherwise, his real work begins Saturday morning. And carries through to the Sunday night NFL game.

As for typical weekend activities, such as going to Home Depot or putting on a pair of pants? They tend to get lost in the shuffle.

"For 48 hours, he doesn't sleep or eat," says Han, a friend who has known KJ since childhood. "I come over to his house. He's on the sofa, flipping channels. Most of the time, he's in his underwear. Bring some shades."

Weekend after weekend, KJ wakes up to the early broadcast of ESPN's "College Gameday." He likes Kirk Herbstreit - not because the former Ohio State quarterback offers entertaining commentary but because he "knows the Big Ten."

Next comes a trip to KJ's upstairs office. On a bookshelf, Tolstoy's "War and Peace" sits next to Bill Gates' "The Road Ahead"; in a trash can, there's an invitation to a holiday party at Bally's casino in Atlantic City.

KJ sits in a black leather chair, computer mouse in hand. He scrutinizes team statistics at Sportsline.com, then browses the message boards at a well-known sports gambling site. There, posters with names like "DiceThrower" and "Wiseguy" offer advice on the day's games.

As a Maryland alum, KJ closely follows the ACC. But when it comes to other conferences, he looks for a little advice. The sort of advice only an anonymous Internet gambling junkiecan provide.

"I know the people on the board who live in certain areas, who know certain teams," KJ says. "DiceThrower is good with the SEC. I don't necessarily follow everything he says, but I try to listen."

Like sports gamblers since time immemorial, KJ wagers through a local bookie; in a thoroughly modern twist, he does so online. Once he enters his account name and password, the bookie's Web site offers action on the NFL, the NBA, college sports and Canadian football. There's also a page for English Premier League and Italian Serie A soccer.

"I never dabble in that," KJ says.

Usually, KJ waits until five minutes before kickoff of the noon game to place his wagers. Bet any sooner, he says, and you risk getting burned by previously unannounced player injuries. After logging his bets - typically between $500 to $1,000 a contest - he ambles down to his living room to watch games.

On the way, he makes a point of loading his dishwasher or starting a load of laundry. His carpet looks near-new, the result of frequent vacuuming.

"It makes me feel less guilty," he says. "I could do other things. Fix my house. Go jogging. Play basketball. Every Sunday morning before the football season started, I used to play. Not anymore."

This bettor's life

KJ isn't just a weekend gambling warrior: He bets weeknights, too. Basketball. Hockey. Horse racing. Dog racing - in Florida. Turned off by a Monday night NFL contest, he wagered on a Yankees playoff game, even though he didn't have a good feeling about his bet.

Fact was, he needed some action.

"I don't even like hockey," he adds. "If I'm watching hockey, there's an 85 to 90 percent chance that I have money on the game."

He has a set of rules, a patchwork gambling philosophy he swears by. Most of his precepts are common sense: Bet the under in the NL. The over in the AL. Find a good point guard in college hoops. Look for a stout defense or a team on a roll in college and pro football. Always let it ride with a good coach - or against a lousy one.

"There's tons of bad coaches in college," KJ says excitedly. "Like Phil Fulmer at Tennessee. He's horrible. They have an overflowing amount of talent every year and don't do anything. And [quarterback Casey] Clausen's horrible. That's a beautiful combination."

KJ will spend more than half an hour studying a single game. Sometimes, he does his "research" at work. He stays away from parlays and teasers, calling them "suckers' bets." He limits his online account to $3,000, down from a previous high of $8,000.

"I used to go in blind, just take teams because I liked them," he says. "Now, if I don't like a game, I won't touch it. You have to have discipline."
More discipline: After losing $840 on the aforementioned Yankees game, KJ attempted to break even by laying down a pair of $400 basketball bets.

"If I win both, I break even," he explains. "If I win one and lose one, I just lose the juice. Still, I'm slowing myself down."

And if he loses both?

"I need to re-evaluate," he says, baffled by the notion. "Because then I'm not doing my job."

KJ has been at his "job" for nearly two decades. As a high school senior in Silver Spring, he was voted Most Likely to be in Gambler's Anonymous. He racked up $1,500 in sports betting debt. His parents paid it off. But first, they nearly disowned him. He took a whipping from his father. A tongue-lashing from his mother. Scared straight, he promised he would never, ever gamble again.

"I don't remember how long it was until I made my next bet," he recalls. "At least a couple of months."

College was more of the same. Much, much more. KJ wagered on a game a day, $300 at a time, betting three or four games on weekends. He paid his tuition by hustling pool. He paid off his gambling losses by stealing from his parents' business, a pair of convenience stores in the District.

"It was all cash," KJ says. "I still feel bad. But it's water under the bridge. What am I going to do?"

A campus bookie later introduced KJ to a circuit of illegal, high-stakes poker games being run out of houses in southern Maryland. Following graduation, KJ played from sundown to sunrise, skipping work when necessary. A card dealer at one of the house games supplied him with Vicodin, a powerful prescription painkiller, at $5 a pill. For six months, KJ was hooked on the same drug that left Brett Favre vomiting blood and nearly cost the Green Bay Packers quarterback his football career.

Today, KJ says he's kicked the habit. He still has a few capsules in his house.

"I haven't taken any in a month," he says. "I've got a pretty addictive, compulsive personality. When you're in an environment where everything is about gambling, there are a lot of people with addictions."

When to fold 'em?

Another Saturday morning. KJ sits on his living room couch, nursing a head-splitting hangover. He's flipping between Penn State-Northwestern and Wisconsin-Minnesota. He hasn't made a move upstairs.

He says he's decided to quit.

"I would have done well today if I had bet," KJ says, noting Minnesota's 17-6 lead with a hint of regret. "I love Minnesota. Wisconsin doesn't have the offense to contend with them."

He's had enough. Enough with losing money, wasting time, being alone. He's sitting on $12,000 in gambling debt. He wants to pay it off. He hopes to start his own business. Maybe get an MBA. He would like to find a wife, settle down, raise children.

"I've known him for 14, 15 years," says Darrell, a friend from college. "Every year he says, 'I'm going to quit. I'm done.' But he never stops."

It won't be easy. KJ gave up gambling once before, for nearly two years, while going back to school for computer network training. Soon enough, he was riding high on the Internet boom - and betting on sports from his office. This year, he's up almost $8,000. But if he manages to quit for good, it won't be the money he misses.

"The intensity level that I have on games won't be there," he says. "I won't really enjoy them. If I'm not betting on college football, I don't even want to see it."

He pauses.

"I should enjoy the game for what it is," he adds. "I think whatever I'm doing right now is a bad thing. I don't need it. "

The phone rings. It's Darrell. KJ tells him to bring over some lunch. Burgers, he says, with fries. He makes plans to get a haircut, perhaps see a movie. He takes a sip of water. Scratches the back of his neck. He glances at the television. Top-ranked Oklahoma is crushing Texas Tech. He lets out a long sigh.

"Oklahoma-Texas Tech," he says. "Here's another game I love."

Originally published in The Washington Times