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Degenerate, Inc.: The Paranoid and Obsessive Life of a Mid-Level Bookie 

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His broadcast partner Kirk Herbstreit asked: "Who's celebrating, Ohio State fans?"

"They were celebrating early! There are some numbers crunchers who... " Musberger chuckled a little bit. "Oh my goodness. Oh my goodness."

It's almost like Musburger was talking directly to Steve with that comment, as he tossed his laptop to the ground the moment Ohio State's defense fell on the ball in the endzone.

"Anything other than that, I win," he recalls. "We lost five figures on that play; Vegas lost $100 million on that touchdown. I broke my computer after that. I threw it mostly because I had everything entered already because the chance of that happening were like one in a billion."

But sometimes fluke plays — the ones that have nothing to do with the result of the game but somehow end up changing the result of the bet — work in his favor. He recalls the blowout end of an NBA game a few weeks ago when a player was just dribbling out the clock and tossed a shot up as a goof.

"A guy sank a pointless three-pointer as time expired on some meaningless NBA game to cover the line," he says. "And we made more than a grand on that pointless three."

***

Steve and Luke run a profitable operation together — one that got them both out of that suffocating and soul-crushing gambling debt — but the major friction between them now revolves around different philosophies on handling the customers who are now in significant debt to them.

Luke's too nice, too friendly, too quick to forgive so much debt from someone who owes thousands of dollars and shouldn't allow people to place bets when they owe money, Steve says. He gets angry having to take bets from "asshole degenerate" bettors he knows got a deal on their old debt.

"I give Luke shit all the time because he's your best friend, your next-door neighbor kind of guy," Steve says. "Because Luke builds these budd-buddy relationships with these guys, these guys are willing to work with him. He gives them enough of the fucking carrot, he puts that carrot out in front of them and lets them work toward it, then get a little bit of it. He gets paid about half of what he's owed and then still lets them make plays. He'll let them do shit like that, but for nine months of the year those are the guys I have to to deal with on a day-to-day basis. I have to communicate with these guys nonstop."

Ben, his roommate, mentions that Luke's amiability is effective in getting money for a bookie who refuses to break kneecaps to "send a message" to debtors. "You see in the movies where a bookie has his meat hunt you down or kick your ass if you don't pay, but it's not like that," Ben says. "They play the guilt trip. It's like, 'Come on, man. You've been running, just pay me a little bit. I'll work out a deal with you if you pay me this, or I'll cut it 25 percent.'"

Steve's still on the fence about that tactic: "'Dude, you can't be everybody's friend because that's why people don't respect us,' I tell him. But on the other side, we've had people pay off debts over the course of the year because they respect him enough and don't want to do that to him. It walks a fine line, the approach he takes, and I don't always agree with it, but it works to an extent. We're not going to break your knuckles. I've had to fall in line and take a similar approach, an 'I'll be your buddy' kind of thing."

The agent for a couple of Browns players once owed them $40,000; he only owes them $6,000 now.

***

Steve is making money now, and though his past fears about repaying bookies have disappeared, they've been replaced by the nearly constant paranoia that he's going to get busted by the IRS or police.

There are endless scenarios he runs through his head: If one of his guys gets arrested for something else, would they dime him out to get a better deal? Could the new person he added be an undercover agent? Is his cell phone being tracked via GPS? Are the cops going to bust down the door at his job and take him away?

"Everyday it's fucking non-stop worrying," he says. "You just don't know. We're talking about degenerates, seedy degenerates, guys that have lost their wives because they have gambling problems, guys that have separate bank accounts. God forbid Johnny has a coke problem too, you don't know. Some dude could get pulled over driving drunk and they could go through his phone and see his shit. You don't know, everyday, you don't know."

And then there's the difficulty in stringing together anything resembling a normal social life. Steve's entire operation is based around sending lines out a half hour before games and immediately logging everything into his spreadsheet. It doesn't leave much room for romantic relationships with women who'd rather go out and do things on the weekends and not plan their schedules around the time of the Western Michigan vs. Ball State kickoff.

It takes him from his friends and family too. Steve recalls how he had to leave a New Year's Eve party last year at a friend's apartment so he could log onto the computer and send out balances to clients just after midnight, so people could see what they owed from that day's NFL games before the next day's NCAA bowl games. A week earlier, he had to leave his family's Christmas Eve gathering to send out balances for the same reason.

"What it's like now is not how it's supposed to be," Ben says. "It wasn't supposed to be Steve having to leave family on Christmas Eve to go sit in his car for 45 minutes because there's a bowl game and he has to send shit out, or having to take breaks at work because he has to send shit out. When Steve had a girlfriend, it was a conflict because she wanted to go do things on the weekend and he had to get things done. He's an everyday person who not only has an obligation to his boss, but the 50 other people betting with him, because if the shit isn't done the exact same way as the past five years, people freak out."

Steve interrupts: "Yeah, if all the lines are not not out exactly 30 minutes before the games, I'll get all these text messages within five minutes - a string of question marks, maybe. 'Where the fuck they at?' 'Where are the lines?' 'You up?' 'You alive?' 'What's going on?' I've got a life to live too. Like, at work, I have to schedule my breaks around this shit."

But would he do it again if he could go back to 2008?

"Yeah, because it takes care of my gambling itch," he says. "See, gambling degenerates, you get an itch."

Are you a degenerate?

"Oh yeah," he says. "I have a gambling problem, and this cures it. I don't need to gamble because of this. Otherwise I'd gamble... I am gambling, essentially, but I get paid at the end of the day. I get paid more if we win, but I get paid, regardless, at the end of the day."

***

Back in late summer, Steve and Ben were talking about moving out of their apartment in the winter when their lease ended. The bookie business was getting too much for Steve and he wasn't getting paid nearly enough, he said, to justify the hit his social life was taking. Ben would take over for him; Steve would head south.

But as the months came and went, the talk died down. The deadline came and went with no mention by Steve.

You don't escape your bookie's financial stranglehold by working a minimum wage job, and you don't stop being a bookie to return to one.

*The names in this story have been changed to protect the subjects' identities.

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