A member of the Degen Hall of Fame
Degen. The word is an integral part of poker vernacular and commonly used as both as a noun and a verb. Abbreviated from degenerate, the usage of degen is the opposite of a term of endearment. Although degen is a dismissive term, it has been embraced in a sad, ironic way by many problem gamblers lacking self-awareness.
Gambling is a non-substance addiction (versus drugs or alcohol), which is why it’s often invisible and difficult to detect. You really can’t hide a severe drug or alcohol addiction because of the physical toll heavy abuse takes on your body. Problem gambling is something that is easier to conceal because it allows you to function in everyday society without advertising your addiction.
A remake of “The Gambler” (2014) appeared in movie theaters at the end of December. “The Gambler” is directed by Rupert Wyatt with Mark Wahlberg cast in the role of the degen. This modern-day adaptation takes place amidst the underground scene in Los Angeles’s Koreatown. The 1974 version of “The Gambler” was set in New York City and directed by Karel Reisz with James Caan in the lead role. I have an affinity for the original film for two primary reasons: Dostoevsky and James Toback. In the history of all gambling, both are legendary degenerates.
The protagonist of “The Gambler” (1974) is Axel Freed, an Ivy League-educated professor by day, and a degenerate gambler by night. Axel Freed (James Caan) is based on the real-life experiences of James Toback. In the early 1970s, Toback was an English lit professor at City College of NY (CCNY). In 1972, Toback decided to write a novel about the highs and lows of a compulsive gambler. The project was later fleshed out into a screenplay format. The entire idea was inspired by “The Gambler,” a semi-autobiographical novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Toback adored Dostoevsky so much that he used the same title for his own screenplay. If you are not familiar with 19th century Russian literature, Dostoevsky was a notorious degen hopelessly addicted to roulette. In 1867, Dostoevsky cranked out “The Gambler” in a series of installments for an overbearing publisher in order to pay off his debts.
Inspired by Dostoevsky’s own crippling addiction, Axel Freed was wholly based on Toback, who was completely aware that he had gone off the rails with his own demons.
“The most frightening truth that a compulsive gambler has is: I am going to continue to gamble until I have nothing left,” Toback said.
The original film worked because it was truly a glimpse into the mind of a problem gambler. We got to peel back the layers of the degen onion to discover what exactly was going on inside the head of a gambler that will keep gambling until he gets cut off from his bookie.
Toback is a larger-than-life character who has had a tempestuous relationship with Hollywood as both a writer and director. He’s probably best known for “Bugsy” (1991), which earned him an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay. Toback’s hedonistic appetite for sex, drugs, and gambling are notorious. He once claimed that while a student at Harvard, he ingested the largest dose of LSD-25 ever recorded. He was in an inebriated state for eight days and needed special medical treatment to bring him back down to Earth.
Toback’s sports betting exploits propelled him to grandiose status in gambling circles. Renowned bookmaker Art Manteris from the Stardust devoted a chapter to Toback in his book “Super Bookie.”
Manteris nicknamed Toback the Music Man, even though he worked in Hollywood as a writer, director, and producer. The first time Manteris spotted Toback, he waltzed into the sportsbook with headphones attached to a cumbersome box that was attached to his belt. Toback purchased one of the first generations of Walkman cassette players, but the newest piece of technology seemed foreign to everyone else at the time.
To this day, Sonny Vaccaro has said he has never seen anyone go on such a sick heater as Toback pulled off during the summer of 1981.
“Toback had beaten us for over $1 million over his run, but we ended up getting most of it back during preseason football,” said Vaccaro, who was running the Barbary Coast sportsbook in the early 1980s with his partner Jack Franzi.
Chris Andrews, Franzi’s nephew, was employed as a ticket writer at the Barbary Coast during the infamous Toback run. On the “Beating the Book” podcast, Andrews described Toback as “a smart bettor who knew baseball really well, and knew baseball history as good as you could.”
In 1981, Las Vegas sportsbooks were not attached to casino properties. They were independent shops that were sprinkled all around town. Each shop had betting limits, so Toback had to run around town to various shops placing max bets. Toback frequented a popular sportsbook called Churchill Downs, but Vaccaro and Franzi hatched a plan to lure Toback to Barbary Coast. They made Toback an offer he couldn’t refuse: the ability to bet individual baseball games at three different line moves with no maximum betting for his last wager (his first two were capped). As a result, Toback often had a quarter of a million riding on a single game. It was not uncommon for him to have $1 million in play every day. Toback was crushing baseball and winning big.
“He shows up at the cage with that little knapsack of his, plus a little valise,” wrote Manteris in “Super Bookie.” “There simply wasn’t enough for room for all the money. He started ripping open $10,000 packages stuffing the money into his boots and socks, then his underwear.”
In the summer of 1981, the Barbary Coast became the place to bet baseball in Vegas. “Barbary was a little joint on the corner,” said Chris Andrews. “Baseball season mid-summer is not really the moneymaker … until Toback showed up.”
When Toback fired away on games, Vaccaro and Franzi shed their exposure by moving the money line to attract action on the other side, which instantly drew the attention of local punters and betting syndicates. As a result, the Barbary Coast was handling $2 million a day in baseball bets (adjusted for inflation, that’s worth in excess of $5.2 million in today’s dollars).
Who knows what would have happened if the MLB season was not suspended in mid-June due to a strike? But for the first two months of the season, Toback left Vegas several million dollars richer. When the strike was called off at the end of July, the All-Star Game was the first game back. No one had played in two months, but that did not deter Toback. He fired away $250,000 on the American League. They lost late in the game when Mike Schmidt hit a homerun off Rollie Fingers. It was a rare losing day for Toback. For once, the Barbary Coast won a heads-up battle against the Music Man.
Toback skipped Vegas and supposedly embarked on a blackjack bender in Europe in various clubs in Paris and casinos in Monte Carlo. When he returned to Vegas at the start of the NFL preseason, he was betting $50,000 to $100,000 per game. I mean, who bets on preseason NFL games, let alone blindly firing away six figures? Toback was in hyper-degen mode and he took a whipping. He disappeared before the NFL’s regular season began.
When Toback resurfaced in Vegas after a significant hiatus, he was betting substantially smaller amounts. We’re talking $20 parlays. Truly a humbling experience. No one knows what exactly happened to Toback. Probably a combination of busting his bankroll and tying up his own money in “Exposed,” a film he wrote and directed that was released in 1983.
Oh, have the mighty fallen. Variance is a bitch. Toback went from riding the crest of a tsunami wave of good fortune to crashing hard on the beach. But that’s a valuable lesson to be learned in self-discipline and impulse control. One day you’re betting $250,000 on a game and the toast of the town, but the next you are looking through your couch cushions so you can get enough scratch together to bet a $20 parlay card.
Toback broke the golden rule of Hollywood — never use your own money to back a film. He used $2 million of his own money to fund “Exposed” after he ran into problems finding backers for his project. The budget was mostly derived from his epic baseball winning streak in Vegas. “Exposed” starred Nastassja Kinski and Harvey Keitel. It bombed at the box office and grossed less than $2 million domestically. That was one gamble that failed to pay off. The flop not only crushed Toback financially, but tarnished his reputation.
Toback fiercely struggled with the gambling bug over the last 30 years. On the “Here’s the Thing” podcast with Alec Baldwin, Toback claimed he lost over $50 million gambling. Who knows if that nauseating number is accurate, but Toback insists it’s a ballpark figure. Those “career losings” are enough to mark Toback as a first-ballot pick in the Degen Hall of Fame.
“Gambling enabled me to achieve the feeling of being immortal,” explained Toback. “Losing is death. It’s a metaphor. It’s an ongoing struggle to stay alive.”