He has a dollar in his pocket, just enough to pay the tolls back to Joliet. It’s all his wife let him carry tonight. She has his credit cards, checkbook, and ATM card. He’s signed the house over to her too. His job as a heavy equipment salesman takes him all over the suburbs, so he’s always driving past racetracks and offtrack betting parlors. He can’t risk doing that with money in his pocket.
Matt (all the names in this article have been changed) had his last really big day at the races on May 5, 2001, the day Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby. He was at the betting parlor of the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, gambling with his father. Playing the horses was how he spent time with his dad–and with his clients and friends. The Rio carried broadcasts for 482 races that day, beginning with the morning sprints at Aqueduct in New York and ending with the final trot at a floodlit harness track in California. Matt bet on every one of them, speed-reading through the fat programs, then rushing to the windows to blurt numbers at the tellers. For a while, he was hot: he hit the trifecta in the derby and won nearly four grand. But by the end of the day he’d had to visit the ATM three times.
Matt had flown out to Vegas on Friday with $2,500. He flew home on Sunday with 40 cents. But he was confident he could recoup his losses wagering on the two remaining Triple Crown races, the Belmont and the Preakness, and he wasn’t worried about putting together a stake. Matt had worked out a way of milking his company credit card for cash and forestalling repayment indefinitely–he’d been using the trick for three years. One day he meant to pay all the money back, as soon as he hit something big.
A month later, just before the Belmont, Matt tried to use his card to buy an airline ticket. The charge was refused. He called the credit card company.
“Your card has been cut off,” he was told. “You’ve got to see your administrator at work.”
The next day Matt went to see his boss and told him that he’d racked up a debt of $170,000 in the company’s name.
A pudgy 38-year-old with shaggy blond hair and windshield-thick glasses, Matt is sitting at a table in the library of a Lutheran church in Lisle, taking a break from the 12-step meeting downstairs.
“I started gambling my sophomore year in high school,” he says. “My dad asked a friend of his who was going to Arlington to take me and my brother with him. We hit the daily double–a horse called Teutonic Knight. I fell in love with the racetrack. I was an avid baseball fan, and all that went out the window. I worked at a fast-food restaurant, and I started stealing money from the till so I could go to the track.”
After class Matt would catch a bus from his south-side high school to get to Sportsman’s Park in Cicero in time for the late daily double. “I didn’t go to the prom, I went to Sportsman’s. I had very few friends, and if they didn’t go to the track, I didn’t want anything to do with ’em.”
After high school Matt attended a state university in Iowa. There was no racing in the vicinity, but Matt was manager of the basketball team, and whenever they played an away game against Creighton he’d slip away to an OTB. Later he began taking the Greyhound to Omaha on weekends to gamble at the Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack, sleeping in the grandstand on Saturday nights to save money for Sunday’s card.
“When the basketball team played in the Sun Bowl tournament, we took a side trip to Mexico,” he says. “All the other guys went to a brothel to get laid. I went to a race book in Juarez and made $700.”
Upon graduating Matt tried to get a public relations job at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Altoona, Iowa. Turned down, he moved back to Chicago and began selling diesel engines. He entertained his clients at the track, and whenever one of his friends had a bachelor party, Matt arranged for it to take place at Arlington or Maywood.
In 1992 Matt met Tracy, a divorced mother who lived in Cicero, right across the street from Sportsman’s Park. During their courtship, he had a big day at the track and gave Tracy his winnings as a gift. She didn’t feel right about taking gambling money so she hid the cash in the pantry. It didn’t stay there long. Every time Matt came to see her he asked, “Remember that money I gave you?” Eventually it all found its way back to the betting windows.
Two lears later Matt and Tracy were married. They honeymooned in Las Vegas–his choice–where Matt sneaked down to the race book while his bride was asleep in the hotel room.
Tracy knew Matt loved horse racing but never realized how much he was gambling. He hid it well. If he had a Monday business meeting in San Francisco, Matt would tell Tracy it was an all-weekend affair and fly out Friday. “I’d tell my wife I went to the wineries, I went to Alcatraz. I never saw anything but the hotel and the track.”
Matt always met the mortgage payments and kept food on the table, but he and Tracy didn’t seem to live as well as the family of a $100,000-a-year salesman should have. When Tracy wanted a new fence, Matt took out a $15,000 home equity loan, spent $900 on boards at Home Depot, and told her she’d have to build it herself because they couldn’t afford the labor.
“I had her snowed,” Matt says. “I had her thinking everything was fine. I always made sure I bumped her $500 whenever she needed anything. She thought I was winning. My dad thought I was the greatest handicapper in the world, because he’d seen me hit some long shots.”
The couple had been married four years when Matt conceived the credit card scam. It worked like this: Matt charged all his business expenses to a company-issued card with an unlimited line of credit. Every month his employer cut him a check to cover his expenses. Instead of paying off the card, Matt would deposit the check in one of his three bank accounts and gamble with the money. The first month he misappropriated the reimbursement Matt owed $1,000 on the credit card. He needed to pay off half the card’s balance to keep the account open, so he charged merchandise worth $500, then canceled his purchases. That placed a $500 credit on his account, giving him another month to pay back the previous month’s balance. The following month he owed $2,000, so he made and canceled purchases worth $1,000. And so on.
With limitless cash at his disposal, Matt started betting like he had the biggest bankroll at the track, plunging $200 on daily doubles and betting $600 on long shots at Gulf Stream Park. And offtrack betting enabled him to bet on hundreds of races a day. When he walked into the OTB in Joliet, he says, the tellers would start arguing about who was going to work late, because Matt always closed the place down, lingering until the last quarter horse at Los Alamitos crossed the finish line.
When the OTB couldn’t give him enough action, Matt turned his den at home into a private betting parlor. He bought a satellite dish so he could subscribe to the TVG Network, a horse racing channel. He placed bets by telephone with a bookie in Costa Rica and over the Internet. He wagered on football too. His son Tyler, then six, got used to hearing him scream obscenities at wide receivers and running backs who weren’t helping their teams beat the spread.
For a while Matt imagined he could win enough to pay off his mounting credit card debt. Whenever he played Belmont or Saratoga, he bet the Pick Six, a six-race serial bet that can pay as much as $1 million. “It became totally unreal,” he says. “Because of what I could do with that credit card, I thought I controlled everything.”
The day after he confessed to his boss, Matt woke Tracy at five in the morning. “I’ve got something to tell you,” he whispered, standing over the bed.
When Matt told her he’d gambled away $170,000 of expense account money and that he owed another $150,000 to other creditors, Tracy had trouble catching her breath, “I felt like I had no right to anything I own,” she recalls. “My house, my clothes–I have no right to breathe because of all the money we owe. It was kind of like we were both nonexistent. I thought, ‘Where am I going to live? Where are my kids going to live?'”
That night, after Matt went to sleep, Tracy took all the credit cards out of his wallet. Then she told him, “There’s no way I will stay with you if you gamble again.”
Matt called his financial adviser, who’d saved him from a dozen previous scrapes. “I can’t do anything else for you,” the man told him. “You need to get into a 12-step program.” Matt now goes to meetings as regularly as he once attended the races.
Surprisingly, his boss didn’t fire him for his theft of company funds. “I’d made him a lot of money, and we were good friends,” explains Matt, who signed legal documents accepting full responsibility for the debt. After he came clean, however, Matt was no longer allowed to travel on business or use an expense account. A few months later, the company reduced its sales staff and he was laid off.
Before long Matt found a new sales job and started paying off his debts, as recommended by his recovery program. He sends the credit card company $500 a month, but it isn’t exactly a formal repayment plan: “I’m just sending them what I can afford to send right now.”
On the same informal basis, Matt also makes monthly payments totaling $450 to four other creditors. One of the agencies he deals with has repeatedly offered to write off his debt of $20,000 for a lump sum of $8,000, but the guidelines of his recovery program discourage him from accepting the deal. “That would be a bailout,” he says. “A recovering gambler has to refuse a bailout. Getting bailed out tells him it’s OK to gamble because there’s a way out.”
At this rate, it will take Matt 28 years to pay off his debt. “But if I start making better money then I’ll make bigger monthly payments,” he says.
Matt won’t even read a newspaper article about horse racing now. He can’t. At first it hurt too much to know that somewhere thoroughbreds were being led to the starting gate and he didn’t have a ticket on one. Now, he says, any reminder of his gambling days makes him feel “horrible.” The secretary of state’s office in Joliet is located in the same shopping center as the OTB Matt used to frequent. When Matt and Tracy went to renew their driver’s licenses, he crouched down in his seat so he wouldn’t have to look at the sign. Matt’s brother asked him to go to see Seabiscuit with their father, but Matt declined. “Obviously, a movie, there’s no friggin’ way you can make a bet,” he says. “But, one, I don’t want to take a chance, and, two, I have to respect what my wife wants, and she doesn’t want me to do it.”
A great passion is gone from his life, but Matt can go to church now because he no longer cares that the service starts at the same time as first post at Tampa Bay Downs. He no longer shouts at Tyler to hurry up when they play miniature golf on Saturday mornings. In July the family vacationed in San Diego. Matt says he didn’t once consider canceling the trip and cashing in the plane tickets.
“Life to me is so different now,” he says. “It’s slower. Plus, I’m a guest in my house now. Tracy’s the only one who can sign checks. She handles all the money. She gives me five dollars for lunch every day. There’s absolutely nothing I would rather do than be at a racetrack, but the only way I can get cash now is to rob a bank.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Christiane Grauert.