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Goodbye, Mr. Chips

May 15, 2006
May 15, 2006

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May 15, 2006

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Goodbye, Mr. Chips

Athletes like John Daly and Charles Barkley have lost millions at the gaming tables waiting for their skill and luck to kick in

Bad boy golferJohn Daly, the latest in a series of problem gamblers with a book to promote,says he lost as much as $60 million gambling. In his memoir, My Life in &out of the Rough, published on Monday (it got the ritual athlete-author profileon 60 Minutes the night before), Daly outlines the story of serial stupidityfamiliar to anybody with change in his pocket and riches in his eyes. Example:Once, after finishing second to Tiger Woods in a tournament in San Francisco,he took the $750,000 check and, determined to turn it into real dough, drove toLas Vegas and lost $1.65 million in less than five hours, cranking a $5,000slot machine till the gears gave way.

This is an article from the May 15, 2006 issue Original Layout

This raisesseveral questions: Did he present a giant-sized novelty check at the cashier'scage? Who was the host who signed off on the $900,000 marker on this reliablecharacter? And, finally--$60 million? A guy who's made less than $9 million onthe Tour somehow (even if he did win $25 million gambling as he claims) lost$60 million? We're aware of lines of credit (and even endorser bailouts),but....

Actually, theonly thing truly unusual about Daly's story is the arithmetic. Charles Barkleyheard about Daly's book and tried to deal himself in on the confessional actionlast week by saying he's lost about $10 million, mostly at blackjack (but henever bets on basketball). Of course, with Sir Barkley, it's not really aproblem. "Because," he explained, "I can afford to gamble."

Others haven'tnecessarily been as forthright or as well bankrolled, but they've certainlybeen as unlucky. Oddly, a lot of them have been NHL players, suggesting thathockey is little more than a casino on ice, or that the players are simply notwell schooled in probability. Last month Flames forward Darren McCarty revealedin bankruptcy papers that he'd gotten himself in the gambling ringer for$185,000. In 2003 reports surfaced that then Capitals winger Jaromir Jagr onceowed about a half million to an online gambling site; a year later it slippedout that the Flyers' Jeremy Roenick had spent tens of thousands on bettingtouts alone. And the sport's biggest headline this season: Former player RickTocchet, an assistant to Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky, allegedly ran a sportsbetting ring.

Gambling's alwaysbeen a problem, going back to the Black Sox, but lately players who hardly seemas disreputable as Pete Rose have revealed the dark side of their recreation.How about Michael Jordan, who (on 60 Minutes, before publication of his littlememoir last year) admitted, "I've gotten myself into situations where Iwould not walk away, and I've pushed the envelope"? Jordan was talkinggenerally about such things as his reported taste for high-stakes shootingcontests, during which he kept his teammates waiting on the bus until he brokeeven on the court; or all-night binges at Mohegan Sun casino in Connecticutduring the Wizards' preseason, when he turned a $500,000 loss into a $600,000win; or golf outings where he had to negotiate $300,000 settlements.

Jordan's fatheronce said that his son didn't have "a gambling problem, he has acompetition problem." It might be more than that, at least for Daly, whosounds a lot like what gambling experts call an escape bettor: Looking fordistraction from life's other troubles, escapists prefer mindless games (slots,say) that lull them into a trancelike state. But all athletes ought to be atleast a little vulnerable to risk-reward schemes, since that's essentially howthey make their bread to begin with. Every player, in every sport, isconditioned to taking short odds. A Hall of Fame hitter must be willing tosuffer humiliation in two of every three at bats. The best NBA sharpshooterdoesn't even hit half his shots. Tiger Woods doesn't make every eight-footputt, and John Daly definitely doesn't.

A disposition tosuffer through loss does not transfer so well to the casino, where the abilityto affect outcomes is almost completely illusory. Athletes' talents areincidental to blackjack, the Super Bowl spread, the line on the Final Four.(And, for sure, John, the pull of a handle.) But some simply can't understandhow their will to win, on its own, means so little in the poker room. KeithWhyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, says thehigh incidence of problem gambling among athletes is quite predictable."They believe that they can make their own luck and have the skills tosucceed where others don't." Well, why not? Haven't they always?

Both Daly andBarkley have announced plans to scale down their gambling. Daly says he's goingto start at the $25 slots now and, if he wins, take it to the blackjack tableand maybe get his $60 million back: "Well, that's my plan." Barkleyintends to scale back from $20,000 a hand, maybe to $1,000 a hand. But it won'tbe easy. As Barkley said, "It's a stupid, bad habit, a waste of money. ButI love it."

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''Officials had police investigate after 10 playerswere stricken with food poisoning." --FOR THE RECORD, PAGE 20

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY JOE CIARDIELLO