Monday, April 29, 2013

Wanna Bet?: Gambling and the Masculine Ego

In an unexpected moment, this Montreal theoretician,
adorned with a stiff poker face, offered me a $50,000 wager
on the Caps missing the playoffs in three years.

This week the NHL playoffs begin and beards across the country begin to grow. For the fourth time in five seasons, my beloved Capitals are once again slated to face the New York Rangers. It should be a knockdown, drag out melee that will likely last seven brutal games. After a disastrous start to the season, that saw them last place in the league, the Caps stormed back, clinching another division title with games to spare. They continued their run of consecutive seasons in the post season; they have six in a row, the fourth longest active streak.

As I recollect each of the past seasons, one experience from three years ago stands out. The Caps had captured their first Presidents’ Trophy, for the best record in the league, and were favorites for a Stanley Cup appearance. Their first round match up was against the eighth seeded Montreal Canadiens.

I was at a bar, watching game three of the Capitals/Canadiens series. It was a big place, filled with televisions, but the back bar area was fairly empty. I was rocking some red, of course.

The first period was scoreless, but the Caps blistered the Habs for four goals in the second, tying a franchise record. The game put them up 2-1 in the series. My mood was elevated and relaxed as the Caps cruised, and I noticed a guy in a Montreal jersey. He and his friend were the only other people watching the game, so we started to talk hockey.

The Habs fan was in a surly mood because of the game. The conversation proceeded in a relatively friendly manner. He was an amateur player/official himself and pontificated at length on the nature of hockey for the benefit of his friend, who was but a dilettante. In an unexpected moment, this Montreal theoretician, adorned with a stiff poker face, offered a $50,000 wager on the Caps missing the playoffs in three years.

I immediately figured the Caps were a favorite to achieve this. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Laich, and Green were locked in as the long term core of the team. I also knew that the Capitals had a very strong farm system. The Hersey Bears of the AHL repeated as Calder Cup champions that 2009-2010 season. Six players from this season’s Caps team are listed on that championship banner.

The problem was two fold: $50,000 is a huge bet and I just met this guy. In fact, despite this stranger’s sane appearance, it was a completely insane offer. What type of person throws a number like that at someone they have known for an hour? In my mind, only someone who isn’t too serious.
Suppose I had said, “Sure, here is my lawyer’s number. Let’s set up an escrow account.” He would’ve smiled, taken my number, shook my hand, and I would’ve never heard from him again.

A bet like this strange, nose-bleed proposition is an interesting example of male posturing. It offers lessons on the connection of sports and the human psyche. A fan ties a portion of his/her self worth to a specific team. That team’s accomplishments fuel the ego, while each failure stings the soul. I felt this bitter sting one week later, after the Caps blew a 3-1 series lead and saw to Stanley Cup slip away, yet again.

Because the Canadiens had laid a dud of a game, this gentleman felt personally injured. To avenge this wound, one suffered in public, he found another venture in which to compete: gambling.

It has been a roller-coaster season for the 2013 Capitals: lockout, new coach, dismal start, and red hot finish. I have felt every climb and plunge with a theoretical $50,000 bump. And now, with a slow click, click, click, the cars ascend the tower of steel again, granting a wide, beautiful view of the world to all aboard. After this brief respite before Game One, the precious moment comes as we are thrust one more time, one hundred miles an hour, headlong over the horizon, into the future unknown.