Confession: I was once a grifter too….

I didn’t know I’d been a grifter. Or a part of working with other grifters. It was a long time ago and I knew then it wasn’t strictly legal. I knew it was dangerous, but that was nothing to do with the issue of legality.

It’s an anecdote I’ve told for years – a true story – but I never fully understood the details, and this is the first time I have written about it anywhere. Yet I was involved and made quite a useful bit of money for me at that time and at my age. I was rather young to be placing largish bets on horses, but that’s what I was doing. Lots of money to be betting for me at that time and at my age. Underage.

It only made sense today, oddly, some 45 years later. I’m reading Jim Thompson’s The Grifters and in an early chapter Lilly Dillon is at the racetrack involved in a betting scam for her boss Bobo Justus. Without going into the specifics of the story and that chapter, it was clear that her scam was similar to the one in which I had been involved, though I don’t think it was exactly the same. In essence, however, the similarities are these: betting is organised at a wide [State-wide?]/national level and this is to do with manipulating the odds on horses to win. I recall it being the Tote here in the UK back in the early 70s. The betting linked to this – and as I’ve said, I don’t think it is the same as in the novel – is on second and/or third ‘favourites’ to win. By orchestrating many and large bets on the outright favourite to win, it lowered the odds that would be paid on this eventuality, but consequently raised the odds on second and third favourites should they win. The illicit betting linked to this was to have predetermined bets placed around the country on those second and third favourites – the law of averages being that one or two [or more] would actually win each betting session – and with colossal nationwide betting on these, such inevitable winnings would be massive.

I’m not trying to duck out of a ‘criminal’ tag and past here, but I don’t know that it was definitely illegal, though it was certainly unacceptable/unethical/unorthodox. Or some other un-excuse. That’s what I was told. That’s what I believed.

The quasi-criminal element therefore was in organising the nationwide betting on the predetermined horses, and this also of course included the Tote betting. Whoever did this had to have a lot of money and had to have a nationwide network of people to carry out the betting. I’m guessing that certain kinds of people are predisposed and in experienced positions to carry out this kind of ‘underground’ business.

So I’m seventeen years old and studying at college post-GCEs and doing this somewhere in the south east of the country [I know: all these euphemisms and this seemingly silly subterfuge]. And without going into specific details of this either – not that I can genuinely remember any about the person – I become acquainted with another American [though this factor is quite irrelevant to the story, just an interesting coincidence] and he ‘invites’ me to become involved in this betting scenario to earn some money.

The deal is that he will pay me £5 a day – a lot then to do all I had to do – and he would also give me the cash to bet on the horses that had been selected. I would be given the names of betting shops to do this in, and of course the races in which the named horses would be running. I was given specific betting shops to use because he would be betting in other ones: placing bets for the people who organised the nationwide scam and who supplied him with the highly secret names of selected horses each race day. This is why it was dangerous. He was getting me to work for him. Whilst the whole idea and implementation of it was meant to be an absolute private and secret activity – for very obvious reasons – he was taking a considerable risk to ‘steal’ this information and use for his benefit, and mine. I don’t believe I fully realised the potential problem this might have caused for him and me should our arrangement have been discovered, though he did warn that I had to keep our activity completely private and secret [I do understand the deep irony] because if found out he would be harmed. For some reason I hadn’t at that time extrapolated on such a cautioning.

We would bet most often in the same town where we lived but would also travel further afield, taking the bus and train to other places. I don’t know how much he was betting, but I would be placing 5, 10 and 20 pound bets for him on the designated list of horses that would be written on a piece of paper for me each time. I need to stress: this was probably 1971 so those were significant single bets to be placing – maybe three or four times in a single betting shop – and I was then a long-haired student-type [yes, hippie] and it must have seemed odd that I had that much money to bet. And to clearly if only occasionally win. But remember, those wins would be significant because of the scam being played nationwide.

Indeed, the oddity was noted. There were times when I had bets refused. No reason given, just refused [and again I can’t genuinely remember what if any reasons were given, but I recall this happened]. And this is when we would travel further afield – to find fresh territory.

I also think this supports my notion that what I was doing wasn’t illegal. Either in individual betting shops or collectively in a town, word got round that people were betting significant sums of money and my friend also experienced occasional refused bets, presumably on the basis that it was obvious a scam was going on, but nothing could be proven. It wasn’t as if horses or riders were being hobbled or anything else overtly criminal was happening. Surely.

I would like to have told this true story as a noir narrative in the style of Jim Thompson, but it would need dialogue and I really haven’t got the information from 45 years ago to either use or even make up. And I’d have to work too hard to bring this out of and above the transactional, as engaging as a true reflection I hope it is. This next and final bit does, however, deserve its drama, so I hope the continued factual recounting will do it justice.

I don’t know if this was the end of our partnership, but I suspect so. Remember, I’d come to all of this completely new. I’d never been in a betting shop before I started this casual job, taking time off college to do so. My attendance record was so bad anyway that this merely slotted something tangible into the gaps, though unknown to others. Whilst I must have picked up the workings of the job quite quickly, and some of the protocols that made me seem reasonably experienced, it was a steep learning curve that was still rising. Whilst I had the information given to me on the sheet of paper about what horses to bet on, I don’t think this list was ever definitive. There would be fortuities, and decisions to make accordingly. I think I had to scrutinise the blackboards to see about whether horses were actually running on the day [they could be withdrawn for a number of reasons], or other varying information. Again, these specifics are hazy.

What I remember with clarity is my friend’s huge smile when he met me as I was exiting the betting shop. We’d had a substantial win. The preordained horse had won and the odds were significantly in our favour. It was a horse I had been told to place a large bet on too, whatever that figure was – probably the £20, but at the odds given that was a return in the hundreds. 1971 remember. Not high rollers, either of us. Me especially, but he was just an ordinary guy chancing things in addition to his day job. And that money was all for him. Not the syndicate. He was being paid a flat fee as well as me [obviously more than £5] but all the winnings he made went back to the boss, whoever that was. I was never told. This was the private and secret deal and score between us he had been waiting for. Bigger than any single winning to date, certainly that I could recall.

But I hadn’t placed the bet. I’d like to finish this with the crucial detail, but I had simply missed it. I hadn’t seen the name on the blackboard, to the best of my still somewhat guilty recollection. Something like that. And not entirely my fault. I’m 17, inexperienced, knowing I was betting underage, and trying to keep on top of tasks that on the surface were straightforward in their organisation, but occasionally complicated by the moment. I don’t know.

He was crestfallen. That was an abrupt and brutal stop to his expectations. I was pretty damn embarrassed. I can’t imagine I knew what to say. I don’t believe I even felt like protesting my innocence, apart from explaining I’d missed seeing it and it hadn’t been clear. What can you say?

I also feel in the end he didn’t really give me a hard time. After that initial shock – and I’m sure for a little time afterwards, probably as we headed home – I think he just left it alone. What could he do? It was between him and me. Holding a lot of money for the other/s must have made his feelings significantly worse, but that wasn’t anywhere he could go to sort this. I don’t, as I’ve said, think that was the last time we worked together on this. But it couldn’t have continued for much longer.

I was once a grifter. Not very successfully, and not for long, but I was one and it’s taken 45 years to give myself a tag I’m quite proud to have, thanks to Jim Thompson.

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