Winners And Losers

A SHORT STORY by Willard Manus

Irwin Schaeffer's life as a gambler began when he was just a kid--shooting marbles, flipping baseball cards, tossing coins. He kept gambling all through his teens, adding games of chance to his repertoire. Nickel and dime stuff, but it totalled up.

The gambling came naturally to him; he was simply interested pitting himself against the odds. The more he gambled, the more he liked it. I never thought much about it, not until the summer of his fourteenth birthday when a traveling carnival set up its tents and booths in our neighborhood.

The carnie was an ugly, tawdry thing with just a handful of rides: a tiny, creaking merry-go-round, an ancient, sluggish ferris wheel and a half-dozen dented bumper cars fronting for the gambling concessions. You could play the wheel of fortune, roulette or take a whack at blackjack. All of these games were illegal in New York city at the time, but the sharpies who ran the action kicked in a percentage of the take to a local church or synagogue, allowing the business to pose as a charitable operation.

Four of us accompanied Irwin to the gaudily-lit lot and watched as he took up a spot at the blackjack table. Irwin had to stand on a box to get a look at the cards, a small, heavyset kid with a round, bespectacled face and brown eyes that shone fiercely as the game got under way. His father, a manufacturer of kitchen equipment and a regular in a Friday-night pinochle game, had staked him to twenty dollars. Irwin soon ran that amount up to a hundred by dint of careful, shrewd decisions with the cards.

"Quit while you're ahead," I whispered, but he ignored me. He was hot, he had momentum, and within the next half hour he managed to double and then triple his winnings.

In those days that kind of money was enough to buy a car, a used one anyway. Irwin didn't want to hear from that. He just kept playing, even when his luck turned and he started losing hand after hand to the fisheyed dealer. Pretty soon all his winnings plus the original twenty were gone.

Irwin looked pale and grim when he turned away from the table, but he didn't say a word, just pushed past and headed off into the night, hurrying home. He either begged or stole more money from his father and came running back, sweating and wheezing from his exertions. Right to the blackjack table he went, eyes locked on the cards, concentrating with all his might. It didn't take him long to get a winning streak going and for the chips to begin piling up in front of him.

As he played he kept sweating in the July humidity, his yellow sport shirt plastered to his skin, his glasses steaming up repeatedly. Irwin stayed focused on the game, though, oblivious to everything--the heat, the crowd, the hurdy-gurdy merry-go-round, the hum of the generators and even the mad, primal cries of the kids as they rammed their bumper cars head-on into each other.

Irwin's concentration was remarkable but it didn't do him much good: soon the dealer got hot and kept hitting twenty-one or close to it until he wiped everyone out, Irwin included. Irwin took defeat hard; he stood there with all the energy and spirit drained out of him, looking shrunk and deflated, like a punctured basketball.

Over the next few years Irwin's parents tried to curb his gambling habit by putting him on a strict allowance. Even that small sum, though, allowed him to take part in a weekly penny-ante poker game. I was always a loser there, if only because my mind kept wandering off at inopportune times, but it was different for Irwin, who stayed focussed and intent, and almost always won--at the beginning of the evening, that is. But the mark of a good gambler is to know when to hold and when to fold. Irwin never could intuit when the tide began to turn against him. He always hung in and kept trying to change his luck, an exercise in futile desperation.

Irwin always went home a loser. It never bothered me to lose simply because I never expected to win, but it was different with him. It distressed him that he always started off hot and began piling up the shekels, only to watch his winnings melt down to zip by midnight. He kept climbing to the top of the mountain, only to trip and tumble down into a ravine.

That didn't stop him from gambling, though. He'd return to the table the next week, determined that this time things would be different, that his luck would hold.

In time he became something of a comic figure, a bit of a shlemihl, thanks to his losing ways, aggrieved expression and unrealistic belief that he would one day break the bank at Monte Carlo. Because of his poor health--a rhuematic heart--Irwin could not take part in sports. That caused him to put on weight; by the time he reached seventeen he must have weighed a good two hundred and forty pounds. His eyesight got worse too and he had to wear thick, ugly glasses that gave him the look of a demented librarian.

Then came the summer during which Irwin Schaeffer confounded his loser image. Betting on baseball was what did it for him. If Irwin bet on the Giants to win by two runs, they'd crush the opposition by six or seven. If he bet the invincible Yankees to lose--getting good odds from Chickie, our local bookie--the Bronx Bombers would roll over and die for him. This went on day after day, week after week, with Irwin reinvesting his winnings and betting for higher and higher stakes.

Success transformed him. The little fat shlub in the soup-bowl glasses began to dress better, walk taller, act more assured and grownup. He laughed and joked a lot and told long-winded stories. Everyone, especially the girls, gathered around him, hanging on his every word, roaring at his wisecracks. All of us were drawn magnetically by the aura of success and luck radiating from him.

He generously offered to let me share in his winning streak. If I put fifty bucks into the kitty, he would run it up for me. Because I had been working in a candy store while school was out and had saved some money, I decided to take Irwin up on his offer. I was fully prepared to lose my investment. If it happened--no, when it happened--I would not let it upset me. I would not bitch or moan or rail against the Gods. Neither would I say one bad word about Irwin. He had become my best friend and was therefore above all censure.

We'd meet after breakfast and walk across Pelham Parkway to White Plains Road, searching desperately for our good-luck sign, a LaSalle car. Don't ask me why, but Irwin considered LaSalles lucky. Once we spotted one going by, we'd turn up Lydig Avenue and head to Norfolk Jack's pool hall and slip into the back room where Chickie had posted the day's action. Irwin would look the matchups over, study the odds and place his bet. He never asked me who I liked; it simply didn't matter what I thought. That night we'd return to Norfolk Jack's to collect. Irwin would give me my share and ask how much I wanted to bet the next day. My policy was to pocket the winnings and invest the original sum.

I tried to persuade Irwin to do the same, but he wouldn't listen. "If I make a mistake, I'll make up for it tomorrow by hitting a parlay, maybe even a couple of them," he said.

That meant we were doubling and even quadrupling our money. It kept going too, week after week, a phenomenal winning streak that had the entire neighborhood buzzing. Chickie said he had never seen anything like it, that Irwin was to gambling what Einstein was to physics.

One night I counted up all my winnings: nearly two thousand bucks! The money burned a fiery hole in my pocket. I joined Irwin in buying our friends three-course meals at the Palace deli and drinks at Miltons bar. We also outfitted ourselves with new clothes and shoes, flashy gear that made us look like Borscht Belt comics. We also took in a ballgame every day and not by subway either. We'd walk to the taxi stand under the IRT station and order the hackie to take us to the Polo Grounds or Yankee Stadium.

He'd look at us, two uncooked high school kids, and sneer, "What is this, some kinda joke? Get outa my cab, ya fuckin' brats!"

"Brat? Who you callin' a brat?" Irwin would say.

"You, ya fuckin' hard-on."

"Here, hard-on this," Irwin replied, waving around a wad of bills as thick and green as grass.

The cabbie's eyes would widen, his jaw would drop and he would stare at us incredulously. We'd get the same kind of reaction at the Polo Grounds when we strutted up to the box-seat booth and ordered two tickets, which we paid for with a flourish.

We'd sit right near first base, drinking beer and smoking cigars, relishing in our new and luxurious lifestyle. Heretofore, we'd only watched baseball from the bleachers, with the other poor slobs, but now here we were, on the inside of things, hobnobbing with executives, politicians and showfolk; the elite.

Irwin's luck stayed hot; he continued to pick winners all through July and August. Flush and arrogant as we were, Pelham Parkway could no longer hold us. The nights found us heading to Manhattan, by cab of course, all the way down to the jazz clubs of Harlem and Greenwich Village, the legitimate theatres off Times Square, the Greek tavernas along Eighth Avenue where we drank retsina and ate roast lamb and slapped five-dollar bills on the bellydancers' gyrating hips and rumps.

One night we found our way to a sports bar Chickie had told us about, not far from Madison Square Garden. "It's an action joint," he said, "and it's got some of the best-lookin' hookers in town."

Chickie was right; the bar was crowded and jumping, with a jukebox blaring Aretha and Dinah, and the hookers were young, black and beautiful, with dresses slashed down to their bellybuttons. Irwin and I stood at the bar, sipping our drinks and chewing on unlit cigars (meant to make us look older), wondering what to do. Our combined sexual experience amounted to having copped the odd feel or two from a neighborhood girl.

The whores looked us over warily. My eyes fell on a fresh-faced young girl with skin the color of chocolate milk. She stared back at me, then sauntered over, a dubious expression on her face. "You ain't got no business bein' here," she said. "You're nuthin' but jailbait."

"I'm eighteen," I lied.

"Really? Well, shit, it don't matter how many years you got, just how many bucks you got."

"Not to worry," Irwin cut in, pulling out a hundred-dollar bill and slapping it down on the bar. "We came prepared."

"Oh, yeah, I guess you did," the girl allowed, with a laugh.

She turned and signalled to her friend, a stocky but voluptuous woman in a tight red satin dress that looked three sizes too small for her.

A half hour later we went up to their apartment on St. Nicholas Avenue and spent the night with them. Over the next couple of weeks we spent a a good thousand dollars on Suzie and Lena, paying not just for sex but for flowers, jewelry and dresses. They called us their little sugar daddies and treated us accordingly.

It was right after that that our luck began to sour. Irwin could not pick a winner to save himself, even though we continued to spot at least one LaSalle a day. Our winnings began to evaporate, especially when Irwin began to bet desperate longshots and parlays.

Irwin's old gambling pattern had reemerged. I begged him to quit, while he was still ahead.

"That's typical of you," he said. "You're always the first to fold your cards."

"Irwin, wise up. The show is over."

"Bullshit. I'll get back on track tomorrow."

"We've had a great summer. We've still got a few bucks left. Why not be content with that?"

"I don't want a few bucks, I want a lot of bucks."

"Why, Irwin? Why does it have to be all our nothing?"

Irwin never did get back on track. A week later he lost everything he had--not just his money but his life.

It happened while we were crossing Pelham Parkway, on our way to Lydig Avenue. Even though I was no longer betting, I still went with Irwin to the pool room every day, out of habit and loyalty. As we crossed the grassy strip separating the east-west traffic, Irwin suddenly gave a cry of pain and stopped short. He looked at me with a chilling kind of presentiment as he clutched at his chest.

"Now do you understand?" he gasped. "Do you?" Then he sagged to his knees and rolled over.

After Irwin was buried I tried to restart his lucky streak, as a way of honoring him, but all I did was lose the rest of my money, even the original fifty bucks. Thus I finished the summer in exactly the same state as I had started it--with nothing. But compared to Irwin I was a big winner.