My friend Nancy recently told me how her last relationship led to an unusual line of work. Nancy has since found a conventional nine-to-five job, while her ex-lover, whom I’ll call Peewee, has moved back to California.

Here’s Nancy’s story:

Betting on NFL football games was my job last fall. I had to read the papers, watch the TV forecasts, and then have these gut-wrenching Sunday afternoons. I made about five grand but never placed any of the bets myself because bookies won’t talk to women. I asked a friend, “What’s the big deal?” He laughed and said, “Do you imagine how a guy would feel to have to come knock on a broad’s door so he could break her legs?”

I always liked sports–especially the Blackhawks–but I got involved in professional betting so I could be one of the boys. I was Peewee’s girlfriend and his buddy. He imagined marrying me and how different it would be because guys usually watch sports or go to ball games to get away from their wives. He said, “You’d always want to go to the games, which could be a drawback, but you’d never mind having sports parties.” I don’t bitch about sports like a lot of women. But I did wonder if he and his roommate had any channels on their TV other than sports, because they would just keep switching from game to game. No way that I could ever get the control. I wouldn’t dare.

Sports are a male bonding thing where everyone drinks beer and burps and farts. Here was this chick–me–ruining boys’ night out. Sometimes I got uncomfortable. Peewee knew I was serious about football so that was fine. But we’d be at a sports bar, and when the guys got talking I’d put my two cents in. One time this guy looked at me like, “Who’s talking to you?” Not rudely. It was more like, “What do you know?” He thought I was stupid because I’m a girl. If I were a guy he’d consider my opinion.

Guys would hit up on me sometimes when Peewee was in the washroom. I wear college sweatshirts, so they’d start the conversation by saying something about the school’s football team. One time I was talking to a guy and said, “I’m going to watch Florida State, but I don’t know if they’ll cover.” He said, “Oh! You bet.” So he told his friend, “She plays.” See, if you know the sports lingo men don’t treat you like a nice pair of jeans.

Peewee’s roommate was this arrogant snob named Dan. What Dan and I had in common was that we weren’t working, but we got along perfectly when he said he’d teach me about gambling. I had just learned how to play blackjack so I said, “I hear you play cards.” He said, “You think you’re good?” “Well yeah, for a beginner.” So we’re sitting at the table. Peewee and I were drinking Scotch–I love Dewar’s–and Dan was drinking beer. I did pretty well. So Dan said, “Who taught you?” “Some guy.” So he said, “Wanna learn how to really play so you can go to Vegas?” I said, “Sure. Let’s play for money.” He laughed. “You’re good, but you don’t know it all. First, let me show you a few things.”

The next afternoon, Dan and Peewee said they were going to put in their bets for the football games. Before they called their bookie, I said, “I want to bet too. Give me the picks.” Dan said he liked Washington. I liked Washington a lot so I said, “Put me in for $100.”

When we started watching the game, I said, “Everything looks so different.” They said, “What do you expect? It’s college.” I thought they were talking about Washington, the majors, you know, the pros. They said too bad. I said fine. I wasn’t going to whine about it. Washington won. They teased me, saying, “So little lady, are you going to take your money and run?” I said, “No, tomorrow I’m going to play with it.” Peewee said, “No Nancy, don’t.”

On Sunday, before they put in their bets, I consulted with my friend Carlo. I didn’t tell Peewee, but Carlo told me which teams looked good. I asked if he wanted to bet. He said, “No, it’s addictive. I don’t want to get into it again.”

I said, “C’mon, ride with me just once.” So he bet $100.

When I told Peewee the teams that I wanted, he said that one team was a bad bet. I said, “I want it.” That was the noon game. I won three and lost one. I said, “All right! All right!” and then “Damn, but I lost one game!” Peewee said it was OK. He didn’t make that bet for me because he said it was a bad bet. I got mad and asked what would have happened if I won the bet. He said he would have covered me. I said, “You’re damn right you’re covering me.”

So Peewee said, “What are you going to do now?” My account was at $200. I said, “I’m going to play it all.” See, the money wasn’t in my hands yet so why not? I think I won three and lost one with the afternoon games. So my winnings for the day were $300. This is easy money, I thought, and asked, “When do I get my money?”

Thursdays are payday. I couldn’t pick it up personally because I didn’t have my own account. I was riding on Peewee’s account. He gave me cash and I immediately paid Visa and the phone bill. You know, good bills.

The next week I kind of got hooked. Carlo told me he hopes that it doesn’t become a habit. I told him, “Oh, I’ll stop if I have to.” I was so careless, I mean carefree. A common phrase is that the bookie always gets his money.

When I used to bet with my friends, it was either a team will win or they don’t. So when Peewee started talking about points, I said, “I don’t play with points. To me, it’s risky.” He laughed.

Peewee and Dan taught me how the point spread works. The spread is the number of points that Las Vegas odds makers give to the underdog to make the game even. At first, I’d say, “Just tell me how much I need to win.” But eventually I learned how the spread works. If, say, the Bears are favored over Atlanta by seven points, that means when the game begins we gamblers see it like Atlanta already has a touchdown.

The lingo goes like this. We would be talking about a game and Peewee might say, “I’m not touching it.” I’d say, “I’m gonna touch it,” but you wouldn’t say for $100 or $200. You say, “One buck. Put me down for one.” Then Peewee would call the bookie, use his code name, and say, “Put two on New Orleans and one on Washington.”

The bettors all have a code name–a letter and then a number. These bookies must have some organization. I’d like to know more about them. One nice bookie gave us tickets to the Bears games. But sometimes I think it’s not a good idea to meet these goons.

With the spread, all ties go to the bookie. If you lose say $100, you have to pay the bookie $110. Ten percent. It’s called juice. And they’d never pay out if you owed them money. So when Peewee started to get in the hole and I was winning, he would have to cover me out of his pocket.

People would say, “Don’t play with your heart, play with your brain.” I put a lot of bets on New Orleans because I’d been there. Every time I thought of the Saints, I remembered the great time I had at Mardi Gras last year. I was so mad when they lost against my most hated team–the Bears. The poor things. They have the potential to win but they always screw up. They’re losers. I feel sorry for Ditka because I like him. He’s a strong personality, a hardass.

The 49ers are my team. One time they were giving Atlanta 11 points. But Joe Montana was out. I’d bet my life on Joe Montana because he’s incredible. But his replacement Steve Bono was too shaky there at the beginning. He needed some practice. So I told Peewee, “I want to take Atlanta. The 49ers might win, but not by 11.” Peewee said, “You’re betting against Joey.” I said, “I’m not betting against Joey, I’m betting against the 49ers.” I won that day. Atlanta beat them straight up and they beat them bad.

As the weeks went by and I kept winning, Peewee actually started listening to me. He’d say, “So you think this team is a good idea?” Stupid Peewee convinced me to play college one Saturday, and after the Sunday games we were each down $300. So with the juice that’s $330. I had tickets to the Hawks game but decided not to go because there was still the Sunday-night game. Peewee said, “What do you think?” I said, “I think Denver will cover against Minnesota. Put down four.” He said, “What are you going to do if you lose?” “Denver will cover.” He said, “OK, if you go, I’ll go.” We came out ahead that week.

One weekend Peewee made out like a bandit. He paid off $1,000 to the health club at River City, got a huge bed set, and bought a 27-inch TV on credit. I now have the TV, because when he got deep into the hole and moved back to California he still owed money on it. I often lent Peewee money–as much as $450 one week–but he always paid me back.

The difference between Peewee and Dan and me was that they played college a lot. College football was screwing them up because it has such outrageous spreads, like 34 points. It was so unpredictable. That’s why they’d lose.

I avoided college games and got scared away from Monday-night football during a cab ride. I asked the driver to put a little rush on it because I wanted to get home to see the game. He said, “Oh really, you like football?” When I said something about the line on the game, he looked in the rearview mirror and said, “Don’t tell me you gamble.” It turns out he was a bookie. Can you believe it? The taxi driver was a bookie until he got caught by the police. He didn’t look like a big goon, he looked normal. He said my bet was bad and that “most of the time everything you win on Sunday Las Vegas will take on Monday.” I don’t think he meant the games were fixed, just unpredictable. That night I lost $100.

On my best weekend I won $1,100. Mainly, it’s because I won a three-game parlay. That’s when you pick, say, the 49ers, the Raiders, and the Saints to win. The payoff is six to one.

Peewee and I started betting with each other. In fact that was our downfall. It could get ugly because we’d get angry at each other. I’d be waltzing around the room singing, “I’m in the money.” But it was Peewee’s money. When Peewee started losing real bad, he was in debt so much that he couldn’t get out. He got a second job and said, “I’m working for the damn bookie.” One night after work, he called and I said, “Shh. The sports is on and they’re saying so-and-so is hurt.” He said, “I didn’t call to talk sports.” So we’d talk about what we were going to do the next day, or we’d get into a dispute about what you did or didn’t do last night or what we’re going to do next week.

Eventually, for Peewee and me it got to be all business. I’d call before the morning game and say, “I want this, this, and this.” He’d say, “Why do you want this team? I hear so-and-so is injured.” I called Dan “the troll” so I’d say, “Is the troll picking it?” He’d say no. So I’d say, “I’ll call you right back.” Then I’d call Carlo to find out who he liked. I’d call Peewee back and say, “I want that team.” He’d say why? “Oh, I heard it through the grapevine.” And I’d say, “You better put it in, because otherwise you have to cover for me.” There wasn’t even any, “Honey, how are you?”

Toward the end, I’d call and say, “I want New Orleans and I want them big–$400.” So he said, “Well, then why not put $1000?” I asked, “Do you think I should?” He said he was kidding, but asked what I would do if I lost. “I’d skip town,” I said. He got mad because he’d have to pay.

Peewee didn’t know, but I was going through three bookies. You’d go with the one that gave the best lines. There might be an eight-point spread, but to draw extra business one might only be giving seven. That could make a big difference. One of the bookies was Carlo’s. In fact, he got in real deep. We’d ride together, bet on the same teams, that was the nice thing about him. Most bookies only accept bets until a half hour before the game. The good thing about Peewee’s bookie was that if you could get through you could pick up to ten minutes before–whaddaya call it? Yes, the kickoff. Thank you.

Once, at 4 AM, Peewee and I were having breakfast at a restaurant. We were talking about betting and he asked, “Do you think I have a problem?” I said no. He said, “I think I have a problem and you have a lot to do with it because you encouraged me.” That caught me by surprise. He was blaming me for his betting. He said I should’ve stopped him, I should have said, “Either stop betting or I’ll leave you.”

Peewee’s account was cut off and he was moving back to California. I went through Carlo and took the Bears over Detroit. I was down $380 that day and was real nervous. I’d been getting migraines too. I asked Carlo what to do and he said don’t worry, “It’s only Thursday. You still have Sunday.” We had a big fight and I didn’t have to pay the $380. I left for Mexico and haven’t talked to Carlo since.

Carlo got in real deep last fall. He had said stuff to me before like, “Remember that guy I used to meet at Dunkin Donuts? He was my bookie and they found him in a trunk.” Another time he gave me a phone number and address and said, “If I disappear, give this piece of paper to the police.”

I’ll bet again. I have a new source for next year. I’ve been looking into pro basketball but it’s unpredictable. And this friend of mine wants to show me this computer program he has on horse racing. You know, until you get into it you never realize how many people gamble. Nowadays, I always think of the point spread. If a team wins the game but doesn’t beat the spread, I always say they lost. People who aren’t gamblers look at me funny, so I have to explain, “They lost by the point spread.” It’s already in me.

Before the Super Bowl, I was talking to Peewee on the phone in California and asked who he liked. He wouldn’t say. He said he’s out of it and refused to say anything about betting. He said, “I’m going to watch the game and enjoy it without my stomach or head hurting.”

He loves the Lakers and goes to a lot of games so I said, “I like Orlando to win with the spread over the Lakers.” He laughed and said, “You’re crazy. Now you’ve really gone off the deep end. What do you know about Orlando?” The way he said it bothered me. The next time we talked, I said, “I called it.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I called Orlando.” He said, “Yeah, but the Lakers won.” I said, “Orlando won with the spread, sweetheart.”

I never mentioned gambling again because it got Peewee so upset. But then I went to see him in California last month. Peewee’s brother answered the phone and Peewee ran upstairs to get on the other extension. I heard his brother say “We’ll go with the Hawks.” Those were the key words. So as soon as they hung up I said, “Peewee, I know that was the bookie. Why didn’t you tell me you’re betting?” He said because he thought I’d be mad. I said, “What about me? Call him back. I want something on it.” He laughed and said I didn’t understand how addictive it could be. I figured, Why wait until football season? I bet Peewee that the Bulls would beat Cleveland, and won a round-trip ticket to Los Angeles to see him over Labor Day.