To call back the days, a labor into which he is regularly being forced now due to the urgings of the prying media and his own curiosity, it is almost as if he must look over his shoulder and discover a different life not his own. A name engraved on a silver bowl. A waxed figure, white on green. A dead man and a proper requiem. In point of fact, this is exactly what he does find. For we—and he—put Bobby Riggs away a long time ago.
He was buried in yellowed clippings showing grainy men in long pants beside the frame buildings and on the manicured turf surfaces of Rye and Newport and Southampton and Seabright. He was buried in the lost columns of Tex and Jinx and of Cholly Knickerbocker where he shared the bill right alongside a young Jack Kennedy and an active Alice Astor Obolensky von Hofmannsthal Harding Pleydell-Bouverie.
Bobby Riggs played tennis with kings of Europe, played footsie with queens of Hollywood, won Wimbledon once, Forest Hills twice, the World Professional Championship four times, took a honeymoon on an ocean liner and then was buried once more in a family photo album entitled, "Centre Court, Plandome, Long Island."
There he vanished into a stone mansion with canopied porches, gabled roofs and greenhouses; into gin rummy dens, "sociable" golf games and country club obsolescence; into pictures processed by his wife's family photography business, where he took on the role and appearance of a John P. Marquand executive: The Late George Apley perhaps—with racket.
July 29, 1973
Bobby Riggs would leave all that, too. He would move to California and throw his treasury of trophies into a bin at an apartment complex health spa. He would hustle his tennis and backgammon games, flip his coins, deal his cards and exchange cash with everybody around. He would sit with his brother Dave in their townhouse and sometimes drink 10 Heinekens a night, slurring his words, growing loud, acrid and cruel; falling, as he would say later, "completely out of it."
But all of that was before Margaret. It was before Ramona, before his ingeniously labeled game of "sex tennis" caught hold and before another Bobby Riggs came out of aging obscurity to, in true gamblers' parlance, "knock in" one half the human race. This Bobby Riggs was trim and hard. He ran laps, popped vitamins, abstained from liquor and weed, admitted to 55, looked 45, acted 35 and talked 25.
For seven days in May this duck-walking, half-blind, half-deaf old and young Bobby Riggs outsympathized the POWs and outbulletined the Oval Office. All he did was beat a woman in tennis.
Even now, running helter-skelter with no visible means of protection from the onslaught of offers from movies, television, records, jigsaw puzzles, animal food, countless other commercial interests and the pack of agentry ten-percenters who latch onto instant celebrities like ticks on a hound, Riggs is a wonder to observe. Sign to play Billie Jean King? You bet. And he does, and already it's a $300,000 deal in what was a pitty-pat racket just five years ago. He is in syndicated cartoons, matches free throws against Dick Van Arsdale, plays tennis with Hank Greenberg, putts against Joe Louis. Ethel Kennedy is on the phone. John Wayne is down the street. Mickey Rooney wants to do his life story.
Photographers pose him on roller skates, in rocking chairs, jumping benches; carrying umbrellas, suitcases and buckets of water; wearing boxing gloves, anglers' waders, dresses and wigs; and even holding on to a baby lion. Like all the rest, this did not faze Riggs. He was driving out the gate of his apartment quarters and realized he would be late for the picture. Somewhat confused but not breaking conversational stride, he instructed a bewildered gate man in stern tones, "Tell the lion to meet me on court one."
Armed with his reputation as a wit's man, his hustler's spirit and a wordly knowledge of the dangers as well as the benefits of his position, Riggs seems capable of resisting all attempts by others to take advantage, to make him over into the hustlee. But the game may be getting too big even for Riggs.
His new agent, Jerry Perenchio of the Ali-Frazier Fight of the Century fame, has bought Riggs for about $75,000 from Jackie Barnett, the Hollywood promoter who put the Riggs-Court TV package together. Perenchio wants Bobby to be cautious, and advises him not to return phone calls from the press and to hold his tongue in public. Even Bobby's own brothers warn him about showing "proper decorum" in appearances—as if he were a small boy. As one man close to the endorsements scene says, "Riggs is the hottest thing around right now, and he could go as high as Spitz, maybe five mill. But there are a whole lot of sleazies grabbing for him; he better watch it or he could get burned."
Lest people forget, what Riggs is accomplishing here with his scheme of man against woman is no small feat considering that he started out all by himself. The match against Margaret Court was his doing and only his. He dreamed it up, nurtured it for three years and plugged away until the papers were signed. He always has possessed that rare ability—like Muhammad Ali, Casey Stengel and Lee Trevino—to say the identical thing seven or eight times over in a different way to give the a.m. and p.m. newspapers and the TV and radio boys all fresh slants. So he went to work with such catchphrases as "match of the century," "battle of the sexes," "Mother's Day hustle" and the like.
Since beating Court he has kept busy throwing out bright and trite new lines reminding the public he is "the heavyweight women's tennis champion of the world" and that there are all kinds of deserving challengers around. He and Chris Evert are "Bad Bob and Cinderella, the Beauty and the Beast." "How could Bad Bob want to beat up on little Chrissie, America's darling?" he moans. "I'll even have the men against me in that one."
In any discussion of King, whom he presumably will play sometime after Labor Day on closed-circuit—or maybe open—TV, Riggs seldom neglects to mention Billie Jean's "big overhead and bigger mouth. I'm the Jane L. Sullivan of tennis," he says, "and she's one of those damn Libbers, the lead Libber, in fact. That's it—the Lobber vs. the Libber. But I'm not too confident. Oh, no. I'll only bet my house and car on this one. I really want her bad."
In truth, though he practices valiantly to equate his promotions with the philosophical differences inherent in the fight between male chauvinist pigism and Women's Liberation, Riggs has only a vague idea what the larger dispute is about. Last month 28-year-old Larry Riggs, who sees his father infrequently, was quoted in the Los Angeles Times as saying Bobby always becomes "furious" when he sees Gloria Steinem on TV. In reality, if Riggs watched any television at all (which he does not) he would be hard pressed to pick out Gloria Steinem from Big Bird.
"Who is Steinem? Who is she? You know who she is, Dave?" Bobby laughingly asked of his brother the day after reading his son's remarks. Dave said yes, he knew. "You're lyin'," said Bobby. "Bet you a hundred you're lyin'."
Not long after his victory over Court, Riggs got a lot of mileage out of an application to the Virginia Slims tour ("since there is no sex after 55 anyway") where he said he would wear a dress if need be. Long after his request was turned down he kept pumping away at its promotional potential.
Whether Bobby Riggs was so far ahead of everybody else in his recognition of a man-woman gimmick as a potential bonanza or whether he stumbled onto it by dumb luck is moot, but evidence supports the latter view. If his admission, in unguarded moments, that he never dreamed an intersex match would skyrocket the way it did is not proof enough, then the fact that he—Bobby Riggs, the consummate hustler—was hammered, nailed, riffed and hustled right out of his tiny size seven sneakers into signing the original TV contract for peanuts certainly is. Surely even Riggs was as ignorant and as unprepared as the rest of the globe for the aura that surrounded the mushrooming "sex battle."
No figures are official but supposedly Riggs received only $7,500 from Barnett (who, under the new agreement with Perenchio, will produce the TV show of the King match). This was in addition to the $5,000 Riggs won from San Diego Country Estates, which staged the contest, and the $5,000 he himself put up and kept. In its entirety the financial deal amounted to chalk dust compared to what has since been proposed for future matches plus what Riggs is gathering from his multiple endorsement contracts.
"I don't know whether to set the public straight or not," says Riggs. "What is truth, fiction, legend? What's more fun? Sure, I got taken in the first match. I signed with this guy as a favor to a friend. I didn't know my rear end about the TV play, so he took advantage. Who was to know it would shoot off like this?
"Look, three years ago I started out being very modest about this thing. What I said was that I was not so sure the best women players could beat an old man like me. Then the word was that I had challenged Billie Jean. Well, her people proposed a match for $50,000 at Lake Tahoe but they couldn't come up with a TV deal so that was that. I didn't call it off, her people did. Then the thing came up again this winter, and when she wouldn't do it for five thou Margaret did. So I went to it. [It was not a bad hustle on King's part, either. By turning down $5,000 she has ended up with a minimum of $200,000 if she beats Riggs in their upcoming face-off, and $100,000 if she loses. Poor Margaret.]
"I'm a ham," says Riggs. "I love the excitement, the center stage, the limelight. I know frustrated psychologists have a ball with this.... I hate women; I did it all for dough; what a dirty hustle. Stuff like that. People talk like I'm seeing dollars I've never seen before. They use the term hustler like I need a quick hundred. Listen, I had a million in the bank before Court I didn't need this except to get out there into the attention zone again. I didn't want money. I wanted recognition. I missed that. I couldn't care less about clothes or cars. I've had the same suit for six years. Dollars aren't the play here. The biggest satisfaction from the match is the spirit and hope I've given all the ancients, the senior players and old guys in general. I know beating a woman isn't like winning seven gold medals. But how many old guys are there in the world? You think they can relate to Mark Spitz? They relate to me, Bobby Riggs."
Since a hustler needs only his ego for survival, the public reactions to the match and the bursts of interest and hatred spawned by it have fascinated him far more than the contest itself. He relishes, for instance, his membership in the World Organization for the Retention of Male Supremacy (WORMS), whose head WORM sent an epistle from the WORM hole describing the group's "disdain for effeminate men...and masculinity in women."
The million-dollar figures presently being hurled around Riggs are an additional source of strong satisfaction, but for deeper reasons. While a businessman on Long Island for most of the past 20 years, Riggs was married to Priscilla Wheelan, the boss' daughter. He had moved into a high position in the $20 million American Photograph Corporation, but there was little challenge. And so he took refuge outside the million-dollar dealings of the boardrooms, retreating to golf courses and game parlors to play for stakes in the mere hundreds.
"You marry dough, and all you have to do is mess around," says Riggs. "I knew that. I never had any initiative or drive to be a success in business. I came into the company after having been a celebrity. I was Riggs, the star, welcomed anywhere. And now they wanted me to start at the bottom, sweeping floors or something. Well, I wouldn't do that, so there was always this undercurrent of resentment. 'Wait till you leave the nest, you'll get yours.' Whispers like that.
"My wife could never understand my love for the contest and the action," Riggs says. "She was a beautiful girl and my whole life was laid out on a silver platter. But all that money didn't mean anything if I didn't have to strive for it. So I never bore down. It was too easy. That's why I was not a successful father or husband or businessman. It was really pretty stupid of me, the situation couldn't turn me on.
"I never thought of my wife's money as half mine. The millions weren't mine. The $100 I won on the golf course was. That was a challenge, and I had won it on my own. The really exciting thing in the afterglow of the Court match is knowing my family and all those business people watched me and are still watching, and they know being married to the boss' daughter doesn't matter now. This was something I did on my own, where my true character and personality emerged—just as I always said it would. They resented me and now they're seeing what happens."
Though it is true Riggs was not lacking for riches prior to the Court match—he took his million out of the divorce settlement a year and a half ago by, as he puts it, "unloosening comingled properties"—he still tends to rely on others for sustenance. He is Tennis Guest on visits to resorts and vacation paradises across the country. His plush townhouse at Park Newport in Newport Beach, Calif. is paid for by Gerson Bakar, a wealthy developer and close friend. His equipment and tennis clothes are furnished by sporting goods concerns. And soon even his hair dye will be free if, as expected, he signs a contract with Clairol.
In light of this charity, Riggs' ever-present concern about who picks up the check and for how much is somewhat distracting, if not altogether unexpected. On a recent foray into Las Vegas he seemed puzzlingly cautious about taking in a show at one of the large hotels lest the check not be "comped," or paid for by the management. When ultimately it was, he appeared joyous—hopefully just as much because his name was recognized as because he was relieved of a $100 tab.
Flying home from the same trip by charter jet, Riggs gave a journalist a $35.64 commercial plane ticket Riggs himself had already paid for. Upon landing and for several days thereafter Riggs reminded the journalist of his debt and, when finally paid back an even $35, he said, "O.K., now I flip you for the odd change. Call it in the air. Tails?"
The coin landed on the carpet, bounced heads and Riggs demanded his payment—not just the extra 64¢ but the "odd change" too, making a full $36.
"Thanks," said the journalist, "for letting it hit the floor."
"That's O.K. If I catch it you're a dead duck," said Riggs.' 'At least this way you had a chance."
The journalist still isn't sure.
Certainly, then, it is all a game with Riggs. It isn't whether you get "comped" but what are the odds and isn't it fun to wait a long time to find out? It isn't the coins but the flip. (One of the highlights of the Court-Riggs week in Ramona was the coin flip to determine what weight balls would be used. With bloated fanfare Riggs trumpeted about the "flip of the century," and in retrospect he probably achieved as much delight in the anticipation of the flip as of the match. The flip, of course, was a lot closer.)
If any aspect of that history-making confrontation bothers Riggs today it is Court's subsequent behavior and remarks. Directly after the contest and ever since, he publicly has been most respectful of her and even cordial about her play, considering that Court's performance was one of the more noteworthy choke-ups by a world-class athlete in recent times. Nevertheless, shortly after the match she blamed her loss on a "carnival atmosphere." She said that seven of 10 women on the pro tour could polish off Riggs and she labeled the match "a bit sneaky."
"Unless Margaret's hyping the gate for a rematch I resent that kind of nonsense," Riggs says. "Where does she get off taking such a cheap shot? Sneaky? I advertised every shot I was going to hit. I told her I would slow the pace, spin it and chop it and for her to bring her sunglasses for some lobs.
"Now if I had said, 'Hey, Margaret, we're just going out to hit it, nothing big, let's relax and have some fun and play Mickey Mouse,' that would be sneaky. But I told her this was the biggest match of her life. I came right out and said the eyes of the world would be on us. Girl, this is a show, I said. You better come out with both guns ready and you better play. See, she didn't grasp the deal here. She never realized what was at stake.
"You would think she at least would say something about an old guy surprising her. Give me some credit. What she has to believe, and any knowledgeable person realizes, is that I am one of the greatest players who ever lived. I'm 1-2-3-4-5, in there, greatest ever."
During occasional soliloquies such as this one, which happened on a very late and very liquid evening after Riggs had abandoned his training routine (he says he is now down to only 207 vitamin pills a day) and was imbibing generously of, first, bourbon on the rocks and then many Heinekens, more of his true feelings seem to surface.
This night he addressed himself further, angrily and more or less profanely, to the subject of the Court match. "In the beginning I felt the same jitters you feel at opening night on Broadway or in the first round of a championship fight," he said. "But then they left and I went after her. I wanted to test some things early. After the match everyone talked about the first three games [Riggs won the first three games with the loss of only four points] as if they were some kind of turning point. Why, I knew the story after two points! Two points, and I knew it was over! She looked so bad in two points I knew it was going to be a picnic. That's why I hit the goofer. [Riggs served a high blooping ball on the third point of the match.] I just put the goofer on her and so what if she smashed it away? It showed her that she was psychologically finished.
"Not even a game," Riggs repeated. "Two points! Bing! That was it. How serious could I take her after that?"
Riggs claims he had contemplated serving underhand at some point in the match but changed his mind because he didn't want to "embarrass" Court. He also insists he tanked the seventh game of the First set (in which he tried a slashing shot that spun the ball around his ankles, and also double faulted) in order to try and close out the set on Court's service, which he did one game later.
Riggs does not share the opinion of most experts that the tall Aussie should have changed strategies and rushed the net more as the match wore on.
"She wasn't stupid, just helpless," he says. "Look, catch this play. She counted on two things to beat me. One, she thought she could get her first serve in, come to the net and attack. Well, she couldn't get her serve in, although I can't take credit for that. She was bright enough to know she couldn't follow her second serve, so she had to wait back there for the right shot to hit and I never gave it to her. Two, she thought she could attack my serve and then be aggressive coming to the net. She came out braying that so many of the girls serve harder than me, that I hit butterflies and returning my serve will be easy. Some naive broad.
"In the deuce court I gave her wide spin, way over in the doubles alley, and I don't care who you are—forget she's a woman—it's difficult to come to net from over there. In the ad court, same thing. I gave her a shallow breaking ball with American twist and sent her into the doubles alley again.
"She doesn't know this is going to happen. She can't attack and now she panics. She was bewitched, bothered, bewildered and mesmerized into the worst match played by a good player ever. If there's a next time maybe she'll have some answers. But I doubt it. I don't expect any improvements from Margaret. King might be different—but then I might change a few things myself."
What is a fellow who lives off successful women? In all its raw, basic texture this is exactly what Bobby Riggs is doing—if not for a living, then at least for sideline recreation—in order to earn his "five mill." While nobody has gone on record with a motivational analysis of such behavior, amateur Riggsologists continue to have a field day in this regard. One wrote the following:
"I don't need someone like Bobby Riggs to represent my sex. It is only the insecure ones who need added assurance of their own masculine adequacy.... Here is a man who basically is questioning his manhood and virility. Being faced with the recognition that he is now over the hill, he chose to take on any woman of superior athletic prowess as assurance of his maleness and ability to conquer. In so doing he preserved the fantasy of his own youth. He is a coward in disguise, a scared old man fearful of accepting his physical decline."
Riggs' reply to that particular evaluation cannot be repeated here. Nevertheless he readily agrees that women have taken up extraordinarily large periods of his 55 years.
In 1930 Riggs' tennis career commenced when Dr. Esther Bartosh, now a retired anatomy instructor from the University of Southern California, noticed him hitting the ball around a public park and inquired if he would like to learn the game. At the time Bartosh was fourth-ranked among women in the area, and 10 weeks after she took Riggs in tow the youngster reached the finals of the Southern California 13-and-under tournament. When he was 14 she drove him east in her Model A to the national boys' championships at Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind. She continued to coach him throughout his teens, and to this day Riggs credits Esther Bartosh with furnishing most of the strong elements in his game.
Another female coach, Eleanor Tennant, the patroness of Alice Marble, also contributed to Riggs' early success by donating $650 worth of equipment and clothes during the summer of 1937, thus enabling him to go east on his own. "Bobby...has a strong sense of responsibility and a stronger determination to get what he's after," Miss Tennant said in an early New York Post article that referred to her as Riggs' "Modern Day Fairy Godmother."
During most of his playing career Riggs' own mother, Agnes, did not take much of an interest in her son's tennis, what with five other children consuming her time. Riggs says his mother saw him play "only once or twice." He says she was not a sportswoman, but a reader who specialized in Shakespeare, the Bible and classics. "A real straight-arrow mom," he says.
Before he was 21 Riggs had a short romance with Pauline Betz, who went on to win Forest Hills in 1942, '43, '44 and '46. Not long after, Bobby met a short, pert blonde named Catherine (Kay) Fischer at the Illinois state tournament. At the end of the same year, in which he won both Wimbledon and Forest Hills, Riggs also won Kay Fischer; in December of 1939 they were married in Chicago.
"Kay was always a marvelous, driving force for Bobby," says Jack Kramer, on whose professional tour she worked as an advance publicist both during the marriage and after a divorce in the early 1950s. "She appreciated the fact that he was a champion, that tennis had to come first. She gave all she had to make it easier for them both."
Somewhere between his first and second marriages came a British receptionist with whom Riggs traveled around the tennis world. But that didn't last, either, and when he met Priscilla Wheelan on the courts of the LaGorce Country Club in Miami it was, he says, "Instant chemistry, love at first sight." The day after the wedding in September 1952 the couple sailed on the S.S. America for England, but soon after arriving Riggs could not resist the temptation to play some exhibitions in Sweden. The honeymoon was cut short and Priscilla missed out on a continuing trip to Italy.
Riggs has two sons by his first wife, both of whom live in the Los Angeles area not far from his home. However, the father appears to have closer ties with the three younger sons and especially the daughter, 19-year-old Dolly, of his second family back east. Dolly, having flown in from Florida, was the only one of Riggs' children to stay with him at Ramona during his latest shining hour.
The two oldest boys have had periods of estrangement from their father on several occasions. Bob Sr. jokingly refers to Bob Jr. as a "Coca-Cola freak" and is often critical of his eldest son's girth. His past differences with Larry, a stockbroker and the tennis coach at Pepperdine University, have gone deeper.
According to one member of the family, Larry as a teen-ager held a "barrelful of animosities" toward his father and when he moved west tried to hide the fact from his friends that he was the son of Bobby Riggs. Recently, Larry was quoted as saying that both of his father's wives had been "strong, domineering women" and that Bobby was "a more dedicated father than a husband."
"Larry's always been rebellious," says Bobby. "He's been resentful of me and what I've done because he thinks he can do everything better than I can. More power to him, but the fact is I was wife-oriented, not child-oriented. I spent a lot more time with my wives than with the kids. Just leave it at this: I married two lovely, charming girls and I blew two marriages, being Bobby Riggs. O.K.?"
With this newfound celebrity status Riggs' current social life seems more than full. At a Las Vegas poolside recently he introduced two dazzling young things of about 20 as "my sister act, the Dynamic Duo from the Coast." Later in the hotel lobby a brunette came running up to Riggs gushing, "You were just fabulous in the match."
"Wonderful," said Riggs later. "See? That never happened before, not even after Wimbledon."
Riggs" vitamin-based health kick program—for which he is paying a cool $5,000 to the same nutritional scientist used by Lawrence Welk—includes a high-protein diet and pills made up of concentrations of crude wheat-germ oil, liver extract and other horrible-sounding items. The regimen has resulted in a physical transformation that has not gone undetected. One of Riggs' Newport Beach dates, a blonde stewardess named Dardanella, says, "When I first met Bobby about a year ago he looked 60. Now I think he could pass for 45. His neck lines give him away but he looks completely different. He has more color in his cheeks than I do."
To help him stay in peak condition, to keep his game sharp, to shield him, answer the phone, carry the rackets and be an all-round "go-fer," Riggs has taken as a traveling companion 29-year-old Lornie Kuhle, a former VISTA volunteer. Kuhle is from Decatur, Ill. and was hired away from his tennis pro job at the Las Vegas Country Club. He has known Bobby a long time, having been a boyhood pal of Larry Riggs.
When Kuhle was trying out for a tennis scholarship to Pan American University several years ago the elder Riggs showed up and played two sets with the youngster under the watchful eye of the Pan American coach. "Bobby told me to come to the net and watch the lines. He'd hit it to me every time," Kuhle remembers. "I thrashed him two sets to one and got the scholarship easy. It was the alltime tank job."
The two have been close ever since and, as Riggs says, "Lornie got his master's degree in the Riggs' school; he's had quite an education."
In addition to his other duties, Kuhle is Riggs' foil, a built-in, everyday opponent. He comes with the hotel, as it were, or with the airplane or the limousine. Wherever Riggs is, he makes sure Kuhle will be around to compete against.
The two men communicate in a special argot of their own, which sounds like a cross between the styles of Richard Pryor and Nathan Detroit. They bet "units" on everything from tennis games to memory contests, from the turn of a coin to the flight of a robin. A unit normally is $25 or $50; thus they can conceal the enormity of their bets by screaming out on a tennis court or in an airplane cabin, "This one's for eight units."
Other gambling terms such as "knock a guy in," "barbecue," "in the barn" and "play" are brought up approximately two or three times a sentence. A play, for instance, can be a movie, a steak, a car ride, a point, set, multimillion-dollar decision or trip to the men's room.
"I'll order this prime-rib play," Lornie might say at dinner.
"Should we go for the cab play or do a walk play back to the hotel?" Bobby asks after the meal.
When Riggs has befuddled an opponent and taken him for a bundle, he has knocked the guy in or barbecued him. (Once he barbecued a golf opponent by sinking a 55-foot putt in total darkness after playing 90 holes in a single day.) When he is lying low, performing at half-speed, playing possum, all to raise the ante, Riggs is naturally in the barn. Before the Court match he stayed for eight weeks in what ultimately amounted to the largest barn of his life. Riggs' unalloyed satisfaction is that to defeat her he never had to leave the barn.
Riggs and Kuhle are forever holding contests to test their memory and or intuition. In the form of 20 Questions, their game will open with Riggs challenging Kuhle to guess with whom he has just spoken on the telephone.
"From the Coast? Male? Tennis player? Have I seen him in the last three montns?" Kuhle will rattle off. Recently it took him only six questions to correctly guess Kirk Kerkorian, the Los Angeles financier.
At times Kuhle will "past post" Riggs; that is, challenge him to a bet Kuhle already knows the outcome of. Prior to their first trip to London together, Kuhle checked to find out the length of their jumbo jet. On the flight he then successfully bet his mentor several units he could come closer to the length of the plane than Riggs. "Can you believe this guy?" Riggs screeches, recalling his loss. "Past-posting me, taking advantage of an old man. What kind of deal was that?"
"That was a student barbecuing his teacher," Kuhle said.
On the other hand, it was a small debacle compared to the time Riggs got taken by a corporate thief in Manhattan for several hundred dollars on a repossessed automobile swindle, or the day in Miami he was cheated out of $3,000 when two well-known tennis pros conspired to throw a match he had bet heavily on.
Not long ago Bobby Riggs sat on a plane taking him east for still more appearances and TV shows. He spent his time tearing out magazine advertisements for possible future endorsement references and, when he tired of that, engaged Kuhle in a contest of flipping the plastic "Seat Occupied" signs through makeshift baskets formed by the men's folded arms. He sailed cards into a travel bag. He bet Kuhle several units on the ratio of passengers' meal orders, steak to chicken. He talked about his raison d'√™tre and about the curious term "hustler."
"What I live for," he said, "is the game. The matching of wits. Gambling is fine because it goes along with this. But certain types of gambling have no appeal for me. I'm a bad casino player because I never learned. I was always a fader because I know the shooters aren't supposed to win. But I never learned how to bet big while ahead. I always bet big to break even. I won't go near a racetrack. I'm a doer, not a watcher. 'Psychologizing' is my big thing, but the dice can't hear me and the horses don't listen.
"People misunderstand the mentality of a hustler. It doesn't matter how well you do things, it's how you negotiate handicaps. I found out long ago to always gamble up. Play rich guys and knock 'em in. It's no fun playing guys who go broke if they lose. How do you collect? Jockey for position to get to the big people.
"As long as we understand the term," Riggs said, "to be a hustler is no disgrace. The original conception was of a not very attractive guy who moved around a lot and needed to hustle to make a living. He put on a disguise and came crawling out from under a rock. He was a stranger in the pool hall who deceived people and had a definite lock on the situation. I think I've changed that. I've brought sophistication to hustling and given the term respectability. Everybody knows who Bobby Riggs is. They know I've been a world champion and still am a champion even at my age. They recognize me as an old pro who comes through in the clutch. A guy who will fight all the way. For me it's been a matter of having fun with other affluent people. Wits against wits; minds vs. odds; competition."
Riggs has enjoyed observing the Jimmy Demarets, Lou Novas and Brian Old-fields recently horning in on his act by challenging the distaff side in all sorts of sporting endeavors. "I should have put a patent on this play and pulled in some royalties," he says. Challenges do abound. Willie Mosconi proposed a pool match against him, and one Margaret Clemons, president of the Girls Rodeo Association, invited him to duel her in a goat-tying competition at the Casey Tibbs Cowboy Reunion and Rodeo. Riggs was ready. "I don't play pool but I'll give Mosconi any handicap he wants on a tennis court: dogs, elephants, anything," he said. "The goat play sounds better. I've always wanted to get a woman's goat."
Other challenges have gone begging. Amarillo Slim, one of the world's best poker players, claims Riggs has approached him about the possibility of competing against a woman in poker, but Riggs says it was the other way around. "He called me and said he could get a girl and in six months teach her enough to beat me. Now, there is no way a girl can learn how to beat me in that short a time. His angle is that he already has a girl poker expert primed. Plus he called me 'some kind of hustler" like I was a small-time deal. His approach was disrespectful and degrading."
What Riggs means is that there is dishonor among rogues—a notable confession even if we knew it all along. The question remains: Will he play poker with Slim's girl or tie a goat with Margaret Clemons? Will he try polo against Zsa Zsa Gabor? Will he sing high notes versus Tammy Wynette? Will he dial area codes opposite Martha Mitchell? What will Bobby Riggs do next?
"I know a lot of people think I'm a rotten derelict and hate me for looking for women to pick on," he says. "But I've always been the sweetest guy around. What I really am is just an old broken-down tennis bum trying to hang around a little longer and have some fun."
Which leaves another question. When will Bobby Riggs come out of the barn?