Gambler’s Paradise

My father loved to gamble. It was more a matter of habit stemming somewhere from his playful youth, I believe, than it was a work done out of penurious necessity. He loved to gamble. Gambling was more of a hobby to him. Later, after he got retired, it would become something more than hobby – a newfound way of life for him. By the time he passed away from us one Friday morning by a heart attack, a year after he’d lost everything, it would naturally turn into a burden of alleviating his pain. Something not even all the liquor he consumed in a day could cure.

Over the years while he still had a job, he’d stuck with visiting the pool houses almost everyday, playing the coupon dailies – crossing out the Ts and the Xs between soccer league matches – before submitting them back. Every morning before setting off for his engineering job, he’d stop to buy the Weekday Sports paper, spend his break period scanning through the season’s league matches taking place both in the FA, Serie A., and La Liga fixtures.

You have to understand, in my country, football is more like a daily bread for some. Not a day went by that you wouldn’t see folks standing by the bakery shop in my neighbourhood where they often got first-hand news about which team in which league is up, down, or on its way towards relegation. They’d stand there in the morning cold, arguing about Manchester United getting beat up in last evening’s match with Chelsea. So they’d argue back and forth about which Italian club’s getting recent raves âÂ?¦ sometimes it was enough to stand there watching them yap their mouths about, forgetting that most of them were so poor to even afford a days’ meal for their families. And most of them gambled bits of their meagre earnings away in pool houses. Few ever came out winners, and even those that won, soon found out that the money was never enough – more of a gambler’s paradise that’s nothing but a mirage fading off their eyes after they’ve spent their last dime.

Father tended to play the coupon often with a cautious hand by betting medium: a two hundred Naira here, and another four hundred Naira there. Only when he got a reliable tip and was absolutely sure it was a winner did he bet large. Once he placed a five thousand Naira bet at the local pool-betting house on a Barcelona/Real Madrid match. His money was riding on Barcelona to take home the UEFA Championship cup; folks thought he was a fool, but he merely nodded and went away. The following day he was the only one smiling having won a double pot of ten thousand. The news inevitably went around that father had the magic knowledge on pool betting. Ironically the only part of that money that mother and I saw was the little leftover change she managed to fish out of his pocket the following morning after he’d spent the entire night drinking away everything. Of course there were other times he played with higher bets, but that was the only and final time he won big.

He continued playing just as much as he continued losing money all the time, he soon went about borrowing. Always he thought he was coming up with a real winner, but all he got were cheap games. Finally he had to sell off his car as well as pawn several of mother’s jewellery which she’d gotten from her late mother, just to settle off his debts. It was a hard time for us.

It didn’t take long before he started getting unsatisfied with the pool houses and then decided to up his style by betting on football matches. It so happens it was the period of the France ’98 World Cup tournament. Already father had just gotten himself kicked out of his job a month ago – according to him, there were laying off a lot of workers on account of slashing work effort, but mother and I knew the truth. His gambling was taking a hungry hold on him and he was so into it there was no letting go.

But aside from getting laid-off, father had been compensated well enough with suitable retirement figure. At first mother and I felt glad that at least now he could think about starting up a small business project for himself, she could use a little of the money to open a food-selling stall, and also, there would be enough to send me to high school. That was what we’d though would happen, but neither of us had thought about the World Cup and that father already had his own personal plans on how he was going to spend his entire money and it didn’t include either of us.

As the weeks moved and the tournament matches progressed from the first-leg matches, down to the quarterfinals and then to the semi-finals and finally to the final match between Brazil and France, father had already laid his entire money on Brazil winning. Such never happened – in the end, it was France that took home the cup. My father went back home, crestfallen and old. He never recovered from that terrible lose; it was all he kept talking about till a few months into the following year when he passed away from us. Aside from mother and I, there were few others around to mourn him.

Mother made me swear that I’ll never follow in his footsteps. That I’ll never for once sit in for a crab game, much less stop by any pool houses around. I said I wouldn’t. Till now I’m still keeping that promise.

And that’s that.

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