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Gambling seems so romantic. Indeed, beats there a heart that wouldn't feel a rush when a pro football team wins by four, covering the three-point spread, and you win your $20 bet? But moments later, a haunting thought invariably ruins the high: "Why didn't I bet $200? Or $2,000?" Suddenly, winning isn't good enough.

That dissatisfaction is what Robert Kalich writes about in his intriguing first novel, The Handicapper (Crown Publishers, Inc., $12.95). The glory of this book is that Kalich gives a dead-honest account of the Dismal Science of Gambling. Gambling prospers, of course, because it holds out the prospect of something for nothing. Pick the winners and—bingo!—you're in Fat City while other poor slobs sweat on assembly lines. In truth, gambling is the last hope of the desperate and the salvation of an infinitesimal few. It's a miserable addiction, a self-destructive endeavor, but, damn, wouldn't it be fun to be a gambler?

Such are the contradictions on which Kalich has a firm grasp. When Debbie, the good girl in the book, reflects on her intended husband, Jimmy, and on her friendship with the main character, David Lazar, she muses, "How many times can I tell myself that Jimmy is loving, stable and secure; that David's a gambler and a bad risk, self-indulgent and selfish?" Guess who she really loves?

Kalich writes with the fervor of a guy intimately familiar with gambling and losing, having gambled and lost—one sooner or later follows the other—as well as worked on a newspaper as a horse racing handicapper. His story is full of gamblers: Nathan Rubin ("Only suckers do it for the fun of it"): Ed Kashman ("When you put your money on the line you stop being a fan"); Solomon Lepidus ("The good get buried and the bastards carry the caskets"). But most of all, Kalich's book is about Lazar, a Harlem social worker who knows that beyond those mean streets—somewhere—are rainbows and pots of gold, bright lights and limousines. Having made his decision to gamble on a grand scale, he grouses, "On take-home pay of three hundred and twenty-two dollars and fifty-eight cents every two weeks, I bet two thousand on the Celtics...and I lose. I must be nuts."

Must be. But it's exactly this kind of behavior that gives wonderful insight into the ways of a gambling mind. If you aren't able to understand why it's so special to bet and win, maybe you'll comprehend it after you read what Lazar says of a gambler: "He'd rather be broke and dreaming of winning...than losing a little as his father had done every God-fearing, dollar-pinching day of his sensible, decent, pathetic life."

We suffer along with Lazar, through the collapse of his marriage—a friend consoles him, "Loving a woman that don't love you back is like bouncing a basketball without air in it"—and his plunge into betting college hoops. He favors this sport because there are so many games that the possibility of catching the official betting line way off are far stronger than, say, in major league baseball, where the chances of such a misjudgment by the oddsmakers are remote. And fellow gambler Rubin reminds Lazar that "you always have a much better chance when it's a point spread rather than an odd." That may be why in real life betting on college basketball is on the upswing and can result in something like the Boston College point-shaving mess that broke last winter.

Eventually, Lazar has success. Big success. But his life only gets worse, Kalich writes, "He had succeeded in acquiring money, but there was never anything enriching or fulfilling about that." Nothing speaks to the sickness of gambling better than that. Could it be that the gambler is a masochist who's really only happy when he loses and that winning fouls up his strange psyche?

Occasionally Kalich inserts how-to segments into The Handicapper, but his advice on gambling, while valid, detracts from the story: Maximize your bets when you're ahead and minimize when you're behind; home-court advantage is crucial: look for games where your opinion differs substantially from the official line. The book also suffers slightly from a lack of character development, especially when it comes to Lazar's wife, Leslie. And it would be nice to have more detail on exactly how Lazar gets such great info on college hoops, other than by living on the telephone.

But these are nits that are outweighed by Kalich's knowledge of his subject and his prose. He describes Lazar's father: "He had been a man of large opinion but little perspective, a man who had learned only to build in straight lines and who cared not at all about the curves." Kalich's best writing involves Lazar's attempt to explain the lure of gambling to Debbie. "Sex can never duplicate or replace the thrill you get from gambling—that mania to live on the edge...," he says. "Your eyes twitch, your legs jerk, your heart pumps. You wring your hands, grind your teeth, bite your lips."

Kalich has written a compelling novel that transmits the flat-out thrill of putting your money where your heart is. Yet he has produced a book that presents to the logical mind—which has no relationship to the gambling mind—a depressing, grim tale of what betting is all about. Lazar's twin brother, Doug, sums it up best when he calls gambling "just another sick way to make you feel alive." The Handicapper is alive. Bet on it.