Building a friendship \$1 at a time By Eric NeelPage 2 columnist

The call comes every fall Sunday morning at 8. It's my father-in-law, Ted, on the other end of the line, and he's calling to bet the football games. We play four games each week -- he picks two and I pick two and we alternate first choice -- at \$1 apiece. We've been doing it for eight years, since the first time I came home with my wife to meet her family, and over eight years, I'm up 11 bucks. It doesn't sound like much, I know, but it's plenty.

 Whatever you do, don't bet the Chargers.
Ted's got a voice for betting. It's part soft velvet smoking jacket, part car wheels on a gravel road. Everything's understated and on the slightly exasperated exhale. You make a bet with Ted, even for just a dollar, and you feel like you've done something vaguely inappropriate, something your mother wouldn't approve of, something Robert Preston warned against in the "Music Man."

I play hunches, and I do almost no prep work. Roll out of bed, check the spreads, look to take points rather than give them whenever possible, settle on a couple of games that feel right, and wait for the call."

Ted has a "system." Points scored minus points allowed, divided by wind speed, plus cumulative total of numbers in the visiting quarterback's date of birth, multiplied by milligrams per dosage in the home team's middle linebacker's pain pills, or some such thing. (He's tried to explain it to me, but my mind just goes blank.) The system produces "betting factors" and if the factor is high enough, he plays the game. He swears it's a science, and he works at it like a mad professor, spitting out "4.25" and ".67," and mumbling "allowing for this" and "taking into account that."

(I'm not overproud of my approach, and I don't want to disparage the old man's "system," but I'll just say this: I'm up 11. Eleven not-so-large, 11 coins in the fountain, 11 cans of sodee pop. Eleven. That's all I'm saying.)

Despite the difference in our approaches, we agree on two hard and fast rules: 1. Never bet rivalry games. 2. Never bet the Chargers. With rule one, we acknowledge that venom-driven, superhuman effort often comes with genuine disdain for the opposition. (We acknowledge it, and we want no part of it, because it makes Swiss cheese of the spread.) Rule two, the Chargers rule, is just a good rule. It was Ted's rule first (he's a San Diego local), but I've adopted it wholeheartedly and without reservation. It's a solid rule. Don't believe me? Break it sometime. You'll see.

We agreed on one other thing from the start: the amount. One dollar, American, paid off at the end of every season in silver coins with Dwight D. on 'em.

My friends who hear about the arrangement think it's funny. Why play for a buck, they wonder?

 We started playing the games for the same reason guys do most anything -- because it beat the hell out of talking and actually trying to get to know one another. The games were a shorthand, killing off awkward silences with chit-chat about kicks that sailed wide right and last-second interception returns for touchdowns. Over time, we got to know each other, and sometimes talked about things besides betting pro football, like betting college football, horse racing and the NCAA basketball tournament.

Because it's civilized, I say. Because if it were anything more than that, we'd quickly behave like a pair of angry dogs ready to kill for a bone (which is sometimes how we behave even at the \$1 buy-in). Mostly, I say, it's because a buck is enough.

We started playing the games for the same reason guys do most anything -- because it beat the hell out of talking and actually trying to get to know one another. The games were a shorthand, killing off awkward silences with chit-chat about kicks that sailed wide right and last-second interception returns for touchdowns. Over time, we got to know each other, and sometimes talked about things besides betting pro football, like betting college football, horse racing and the NCAA basketball tournament.

Now, we play the games because we can't help ourselves. There's a rush that comes with a bet. You've got a stake in something outside yourself, something unknown and risky. Guys on the field put themselves on the line and you join them by laying down a little bit of you. It doesn't matter if the bet is a dollar or a thousand dollars -- being in is the thing. Once you're in, you're alive. Things are hot to the touch, cool to the taste.

There's a delicious, maddening edge about the world, and you are balanced on it. Walk around with nothing on the line, and the world is a gray flannel haze of indistinction. Put a buck on something (say, a football game, with your father-in-law), and everything is clear: the odds, the stakes, the ruthless risk-and-reward decisiveness of things. If you lose, the world is a cruel vacuum of chance and bad fortune. But if you win ... if you win, ah, it is so fine, so true a feeling. If you win, the world, the whole world, my friends, is a beautiful thing, an elaborate mechanism set up with just your happiness in mind.

But it's not just the buzz that keeps us playing and, despite what the giddy prose of the passage above might suggest, we're not just addicts. I mean, sure, we are addicts, but we're not just addicts. We're stewards of tradition. We've been doing this thing for eight years now; there's a history to it. We can't let it die. In a world full of flimsy acts and empty gestures, our bets are the sturdy stuff of ritual. We play this week because we played last week. We'll play next season because we played this season. We'll play because, by god, it's important to build something.

I know you're thinking this is just more frenzied-addict logic, and you're right, but I'm telling you, this weird little tradition has been worth something over the years. In fact, there have been times when it's been almost all that's held the family together around here. There have been a few times in these last eight years when Ted and his daughter (my wife) Gwen have been at odds, on different pages, in different books, on different shelves in different libraries. But strained as things were, we always had the football bets to tie us together. They were a reason to call, a reason to pick up the phone. In the bad stretches, I'd sometimes let Gwen answer, just so she and Ted could talk about the games for the week, and this sort of talk would sometimes open out onto other topics, like the games from the previous week, or the games for the coming week. OK, so it wasn't transcendent, and the bets never led to confessions, apologies and hugs or anything, but they were there, sort of quietly keeping the ship intact, and there was something kind of lovely about them then, something that couldn't be denied, no matter what other kind of weirdness and sorrow was flowing through the family.

 What it's all about.
So we play to keep the crew connected, and, measly as it is, a buck a game does the trick. But when I said before that a buck was enough, I wasn't just thinking about family ties. I was thinking about the real goods of any head-to-head competition: power and pride. I was thinking greedy, I was thinking about what George Kostanza once called "hand," and about how I have it all over Ted, 11 ways from Sunday, 11 hands high. (I was not, in case you're wondering, not even for a moment, thinking about the fact he's up a dollar on me so far this season, and that my 11-handed grip might dwindle to a paltry 10, or worse, if I don't get healthy, and quickly.)

A dollar is plenty to drive a man mad. That's the secret of our bets. We've got almost nothing riding on each game, but it's not nothing, it's almost nothing, and there's a big difference. It's a difference that consumes us. I know every time Ted wins a week, he'll unleash the voice in a sarcastic suckaaaa laugh that makes me crazy. He knows every time I win a week, I'm gonna lord it over him and slap him about with my "hand." If he comes out on top, I'm in for a lecture on the virtues of "the system" and the triumph of science. But if I take it, he has to hear about how an intuitive gambler just knows. He can't shake this game and neither can I. He's hungry, I'm paranoid, and we're both twitchy, sweaty-palmed disasters on Sunday, distracted from chores around the house, whores for a scoreboard or a highlight, barely capable of human interaction.

Ask Ted what a dollar is worth; he'll tell you the 11 Dwights in my desk drawer are the 11 most important ducats in his life. They're the peas buried way down at the bottom of his pile of mattresses. He won't rest till he gets them.

That's why we play: because I'm up and he wants to be. It ain't a big edge, but it's an edge. It's enough to make the other guy buy the drinks, laugh at your jokes, give up the last, sweet piece of dark meat on the Thanksgiving turkey, and surrender the good seat on the couch on game day.

It's enough to play for.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.

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