The muscle game

When my dad was alive, my family used to gather in Hot Springs each year for the Arkansas Derby. It always fell close to Easter Sunday, but we never were much for going to church. We had our Easter Sunday on Saturday at Oaklawn Park. Some of us would even get dressed up for the occasion. The Derby was the only occasion other than Christmas or Thanksgiving that brought me back to Hot Springs each year. And for some of the Hills, it was the only occasion that brought them back. A number of my kinfolk I only really even knew and talked to at the Derby each year. You know how family can be, especially when stretched out across the country the way we all are now.

My cousin Mark is a bit older than me and he had three sons who were a bit younger than me. When the boys were babies I remember seeing them quite a bit. I have fond memories of seeing how happy my father was whenever Mark brought those baby boys around him. Especially Mac, the one we all called Buggy, with his wild spray of curly hair that stood on end. His given name was James, and he was named after my father, which may have added to his fondness for the child.

As those boys grew older, I’d see them each year at the Derby, and check in with them as they went from being little kids to big kids to teenagers. I believe they saw me with bemusement, mostly. Back then, in my late teens and early twenties, I think I made an effort to be contrarian, to pick fights, to surprise my family with my shocking opinions or stories of my wild life out on the road crisscrossing America stirring up trouble as a union organizer or taking down pots in backroom Pot Limit Omaha games. If I wasn’t telling these kids about getting roughed up by some cop at some protest about globalization somewhere I was telling them about getting a gun pulled on me in a poker game. I was trying to impress them. I think instead I made them think I was some sort of freak.

One year at the Derby I was making a pretty sizeable pick 4 wager, and the last leg of the bet was the Trails End, the traditional final race of the Oaklawn meet each year. It’s the longest race of the season, a mile and three quarters. So long that the horses have to complete two trips around the track. It always drew a large field, and because none of the horses in the race had ever run that far before, I always felt it was a bit of a crapshoot, ripe for longshot upsets. I had already spread myself pretty thin on my ticket and didn’t know how to handicap the last race. So I turned to my young cousins and asked them each to give me a horse, and I said if any of their horses won I’d give them 10% of the winnings. Anthony, the oldest, glanced at his program and threw out a horse with a name he liked. Michael, the youngest, studied his program long and hard trying to figure out which horse had the best chance of winning. The kid was maybe 12 years old, so I’m not sure what all went into his handicapping, but I know he made a real effort. Mac, however, asked me “why are you asking us?” I told him I thought the race was hard to call, so I was looking for some of their beginner’s luck. He looked at the toteboard for a second and said “Ok then I say 11.” The 11 was the longest shot on the board. I asked him why he chose it and he said “if it’s all random, then I want the horse that will pay the most money.”

Well wouldn’t you know it, the 11 won the goddamn race. It was a hell of a score, too. Somewhere near two grand. I gave the boys two bills to split between them. I thanked Mac for being smart enough to recognize that none of us were that smart.

That night back at the house as the older folks got to drinking and telling stories, I asked the three boys if they wanted to play a game. They said yes, so we retired to the dining room and I brought out a pair of dice. “Do you boys know how to play craps?”

Yes, dear reader, it was my intention to swindle these boys out of that two hundred dollars. But before you judge me, you need to understand that this was my birthright. Gambling was a way of life in my family and in the city that raised me. Hustling pigeons who don’t understand the odds but are overcome with avarice was a rite of passage. I had certainly lost my fair share of half dollars to family members and their friends in the stalest of bar bets while perched on a stool as a child in my mother’s bar. I had contributed my lunch money to family games of ante up or indian poker. I had donated plenty of money to my father in pool halls while he warmed up against me waiting for a real game to arrive. This, I told myself, was simply these boys turn.

A head to head craps game is also known as open craps, or money craps, or a muscle game. The shooter puts up a stake and everyone else fades them. They are essentially betting pass while everyone else bets don’t pass, all at even money. The dice pass around the circle.

The biggest muscle game in America used to happen in Hot Springs every year during the race meet at the old Reno Club. It moved around from there over the years, but it was a famous affair. High rollers flocked to the game, which was never played over the bank craps tables on the casino floor. It was held in a private room, where the shooters would roll the dice on a regular table or right on the floor. They didn’t play with the Reno’s chips, they held fistfulls of hundred dollar bills. The house took a small cut from every shooter and ran a book where they’d let players bet with the house on various outcomes. But most of the serious action was between the shooters and the faders, knuckle to knuckle. They say the game got so big that by the 1960s there were often six figures on the line each roll.

This wasn’t that. But it was a muscle game all the same, happening in Hot Springs during the biggest day of the race meet, between a bunch of out of town gamblers flush with money they had just won and not yet finished gambling. I taught the boys the basic rules of craps, and we took turns shooting the dice. Each shooter would put up some sum of money for the others to match. And we passed the dice around and around all night.

My angle in this game wasn’t to cheat them. I was playing the game on the square. But I knew that my odds were better when I wasn’t holding the dice. So I’d bet small when it was my turn to shoot and big when it wasn’t. Occasionally I’d even slip out of the room right before it was my turn to shoot so the dice would pass around me and I wouldn’t have to shoot that round. If I could keep them shooting long enough, I might be able to get some of that $200 back.

As the night wore on, the money changed hands mostly how I thought it might. The shooters mostly lost. But every time a shooter lost, there were three other winners. So everyone got more opportunities to win than to lose. Of course from time to time a shooter would hit a few points, and get their head out in front a bit. That helped, too. But since I was trying not to shoot as often as the others, and to minimize my losses when I did shoot, I was winning more money than the others. And eventually I was the only one winning.

The first kid to pick up on what was happening was Mac. He first noticed that he was more likely to seven out than to hit his point, and he’d express dismay when he didn’t roll a natural on the come out roll. Eventually he picked up on what I was doing, too. But like a good hustler, he didn’t call me out for it. Instead he tried to mirror my bets. Pretty soon he and I were winning and the other two boys were losing.

Then when Mac would get the dice and put his measly little bet out, the other boys would complain that he and I weren’t betting enough. Before they could catch on to what was happening, I seized the moment and wolfed it up. “If you want, you and me can bet on the side any amount you want. I’ll even let you bet on Mac.” The other two boys assumed that since I was “letting” them bet on Mac, I was making some concession to them, rather than giving them the sucker end of the bet. Somehow this ridiculous ploy worked, and now I had twice the don’t pass action I had before. It wasn’t long before they were both broke. The only boy to emerge from our muscle game unscathed was Mac. We didn’t speak of it, but we had a moment, a shared glance, like the guys walking out of the handbook in The Sting flicking the sides of their noses. This one is a Hill, I thought.

“I can tell you how. In the name of the Father. And the name of the Father is Jesus. because Jesus said in Hebrew, and the Hebrew, the writer of Hebrew said, in chapter 1 and verse 4, that he inherited a name. Now the inherited name had come from a father. And the father’s name has to be the same as my name. If my name is not the same as the father’s name, there is something wrong, my friend. Because you inherit your father’s name.” -pg. 20, The Vapors

There’s this thing I dwell on in The Vapors about families and fathers, and how there are these ghosts of the past that carry forward through families, how we carry more than just our father’s last names, we often carry some unseen spiritual burden as well. My father didn’t know his father. He spent a lot of his life wondering about him. I spent a lot of my life after my father died learning everything I could about him. It wasn’t all pretty.

Mac’s grandfather was my father’s brother, and he was named for their father. And Mac was named for mine. But in a way we all carry these father’s names, because almost all of us are men and we have kept the father’s family name. We are all Hills. And in some ways that’s just a name, but in other ways it means something real. There are things we have in common that make us Hills, and those things aren’t all pretty. But some of them are. Like big-heartedness, a capacity to forgive, a love of family, a biting sense of humor, a tender sentimentality, a toughness and determination in the face of a challenge, but maybe most importantly an abject refusal to be made the sucker. Even as a kid I could tell Mac had all the pretty parts in spades.

Mac passed away this week at the age of 27. It came suddenly and was unexpected, and has left his family devastated. After my dad died in 2009, the yearly trips to the Arkansas Derby slowed down and eventually stopped completely. Outside of social media, I hadn’t seen Mac in 9 years. I never imagined I would never see him ever again.

I’ve spent the last three months trapped in my house, dreaming of the days when I can get out of here and go back to normal life. Those dreams of normal life usually involved things like eating in restaurants, flying on airplanes, and getting my hair cut. But now I dream of something different. I dream of how when I finally am reconnected to my family and friends, I can put my arms around them and hug them. While life before corona was still fragile and short, at least we could live it together.

Rest in peace, Buggy.