At first blush the Russ Hamilton Annual seems like any other
three-day outing among golf buddies. Twenty diehards journey to
an out-of-the-way destination--this year it was two days at
Whitefish (Mont.) Lake Golf Club and a third at Northern Pines
Golf Club in Kalispell--and compete for nominal cash prizes to be
dispensed at a closing-night awards banquet that celebrates the
longest drive, the lowest net score and the two better-balls each
day. But spend a few minutes on the course with this crew and
it's clear something is very different. Everyone snickers when
the other guy's drive lands in the rough, and when someone hits a
putt too hard, it is not uncommon to see his opponent imitate a
broom-sweeping, back-stepping curler, urging the ball to the
green's edge. Another oddity: Some players keep a dollop of
Vaseline on the roof of their carts and use the stuff to
lubricate the face of their clubs, a classic, and highly illegal,
way to lessen the spin that produces a hook or a slice. "No sense
playing golf if you're not going to play greasy," says Hamilton,
the tournament host.
A 54-year-old professional gambler who likes new Cadillacs and
high-stakes golf, Hamilton enjoys the betting more than he does
the playing, saying he recently turned down an opportunity to tee
it up at Augusta National because his would-be host doesn't
believe in playing for money. Says Hamilton, glancing up from a
tiny sheet of paper jammed with names and wagers at Whitefish
Lake, "I can see Augusta on TV if I want to know how pretty it
is. Give me a county course with Rick Casper any day."
Casper is a good-looking, well-heeled 38-year-old real estate
agent, who, like Hamilton, lives in Las Vegas. Casper's golfing
buddies call him Mr. GQ, and he cuts a different sort of figure
than Hamilton, who is an XL despite having undergone gastric
bypass surgery. Casper has come to Big Sky country because he
shares Hamilton's gambling jones. The Annual is not about chintzy
long-drive contests. It is about wagering, rich and complicated
wagering, with more than $100,000 at stake each day on Nassaus,
presses, do-or-don'ts (making a particular score), proposition
bets and Wolf (a money-sucking venture in which one golfer can
wind up going against--and covering the wagers of--the other
three players in his foursome). Hamilton handpicks the field, and
it is filled with players he knows he can beat. "Russ is a great
guy," says Casper. "He treated me on this trip, picked up the
airfare, hotel, everything."
There is a reason for that. "Rick is the biggest gambler of all
these guys," says Hamilton. "He wagers on every hole, he loves
action and is not good at making bets, so I wanted to make sure
he'd be here."
Another attendee, Bill Cole, a bearded, bearish bail bondsman
from Murrieta, Calif., was persuaded to come by coarser means.
For months Hamilton had left goading messages on Cole's
cellphone. One in particular stood out. "I'm calling to see how
my bitch is doing," Hamilton purred. "Next time I see you,
sweetheart, I want you to wear a nice lace bra and panties, and
don't forget the stockings and garter belt."
Before he tees off at Northern Pines, Dan Radliff, a stocky,
gray-haired man with a beard as thick as Bob Marley's dreadlocks,
wants to bet $500 that he can balance a club on his nose for a
count of 10. Immediately the action comes his way, and he's
halfway to the $500 when his business partner, Bob Jones--they
own bingo halls in Texas, hence their nickname, the Bingo
Boys--whispers, "He's been doing that trick for years. Hell, I've
seen him do it with steak knives. Wait till he gets on the green
and bets somebody that he can putt with one hand."
The wagering intensifies on the course. On the 2nd hole Casper,
facing a little chip to the green, calls to Hamilton, "How 'bout
a $100 up-and-down?" Hamilton fires back, "Make it a dime
[$1,000]. I didn't come to Montana for $100 bets."
"Lock it down," says Casper, chipping up to within 12 feet but
then missing the putt and losing a thousand bucks just like that.
You might think Casper would be upset over losing that kind of
dough, but he doesn't show it. On the par-3 13th hole, he and
Hamilton both hit the green. As Casper steps up to a 14-foot putt
that he has bet a few thousand he'll sink, Hamilton calls out,
"Don't forget, Rick, that we've got a $10,000 score bet. Eighty
for me, 85 for you, and I'm on my way."
"You are?" says Casper, sounding a bit surprised.
"I shot 40 on the front nine and I'm expecting to par the back,"
says Hamilton, "so you better get playing."
Hamilton smiles, satisfied that he has whammied his pal, but
Casper coolly sinks the putt, taking $1,000 from Hamilton, $2,000
from the two other guys in their foursome, and even more money
for winning the hole outright. When all the bets are tallied, he
has snagged $5,500 on one putt.
Ordinarily the Annual attracts a more balanced mix of
professional gamblers and big-betting amateurs, but this year the
pros are in short supply. One had last-minute visa problems in
Costa Rica, another is tending to a sick relative, and a third
got stuck for six figures playing Sherwood Country Club in
Thousand Oaks, Calif., and is trying to get even at Del Mar
Racetrack. As a result the only full-time gamblers in attendance
are Hamilton and Blair Rodman, a poker player who resembles a
muscled-up Steve Buscemi and is forever flashing a wad of
hundreds. Rodman, from Rancho Mirage, Calif., is more laid-back
than Hamilton but just as sure to walk away with someone else's
money. "You're not seeing gambling here; this is hustling,"
Rodman says. "It's all about making bets you know you can win and
passing up everything else."
Such is the case with a $10,000 Nassau that pits Hamilton and
Rodman against Cole and Temecula, Calif., bail bondsman Chris
Compton. "That one was contracted before we got here," says
Hamilton. "We're playing even, but I know that Blair is better
than Chris, and I'm better than Cole." He hesitates for a beat,
then adds, "Other pros don't give you the best of it the way
these guys do." How does he get the best of it? By seeming like a
slightly worse golfer than he really is. "A guy who doesn't
gamble for a living will play the best he can every hole," says
Hamilton. "An amateur will never dump a stroke. He can't do it.
It's not in him. But every day I blow four to 10 strokes that
really don't matter and lose a little to build up equity for
later on. I'll lose entire rounds to build up equity for the
Afterward, sitting in the shade of a patio umbrella, Hamilton
tries to drum up zany proposition bets. There's talk of playing
with baseball bats, Coke bottles, hockey sticks. This gets the
attention of the always game Compton. "Russ," he says, "I'll play
you 18 holes and spot you 45 strokes. But you have to walk the
course, and it's your score plus the number of minutes it takes
you to finish the round, against my score."
Hamilton doesn't even feign interest. Rodman receives the same
offer. "I wouldn't walk if you paid me," he says. "I haven't
walked a course since I was 14, and I hated it then." Hamilton
suggests a two-hole scramble with one club. There are no takers,
but that triggers a story about a guy who shot 247 and still won
$18,000. His opponent gave him three strokes a hole and couldn't
break 160. The moral of the story: "This is not about being a
good golfer," says Rodman. "It's about being good at matching up,
about knowing what you can do and what the other guy can do."
Then he remembers the time a Vegas gambler named Tommy Fischer
made a bet that involved his carrying his opponent's bag and
walking the course backwards. "Tommy won," Hamilton says, jumping
in to complete the yarn, "but it took him months to recuperate."
Following a second day of nonstop action the gamblers continue
their betting over dinner at Mambo Italiano, a sleek restaurant
with marble-topped tables and comfy banquettes. Random $100
wagers are made on who'll be served first, how many slices of
bread will come to the table and whether the waitress will be the
leggy blonde or the busty redhead. These nutty bets are a prelude
to what's next on the agenda: a serious poker game that's to take
place around the corner in the backroom of a ramshackle bar
called the Bulldog Saloon & Grill. There's only one problem:
While poker is legal in Montana, the pot is limited to $300, and
a hand of Texas Hold 'em for those stakes is not going to do much
for this crowd.
Naturally, these action junkies find a solution: 18 guys agree to
kick in $2,000 apiece before entering the premises. Squeezing
around a single card table--the Bulldog has only one dealer on
duty tonight--everyone gets 100 chips. (The Bulldog values them
at $1 apiece, but in reality they're now worth $20 each.) The
game is a freeze-out, meaning that once your chips are gone
you're finished, and the stakes are no-limit, which makes for
outrageous bets and bluffs. Within an hour, half the guys have
gone bust. Rodman quietly assumes a leadership position at the
head of the table. Hamilton, out of the running for the $36,000
pot, insists that everybody join him for snakebites, a cocktail
of Yukon Jack, Southern Comfort and Sprite served in a shot
glass. As soon as one round of shots is consumed, he jogs to the
bar for refills. "I've never seen Russ drink like this," says
Dennis Novinskey, a tightly wound carpet dealer from Bloomfield
Hills, Mich., and a longtime friend of Hamilton's. Considering
their 10 o'clock tee time the next morning and the fact that
Hamilton has about $25,000 worth of bets already booked, his
alcoholic excess seems like financial suicide. Casper downs a
shot and announces that he's about to puke. When Ron Saccavino,
the owner of a Las Vegas employment agency for casino dealers,
who is in the running to win the Hold 'em tournament, nurses his
drink, Casper gets in his face and shouts, "Drink, you
94-shooting p----." As Saccavino knocks back his snakebite,
Hamilton reappears with a tray of fresh shots.
Soon, the poker game breaks up, with Rodman taking half the pot
and the remainder being split by Saccavino and Steve Morgan, a
poker tournament organizer from Las Vegas. Around midnight the
golfers leave the Bulldog happily inebriated. That some of them
will be too hungover to make it to the 1st tee in the morning
seems like a sure thing.
Surprisingly, everyone turns up, but they're not all of sound
mind and body. Saccavino says he made two bets with the same guy
the night before, but for a different number of strokes. "Was I
on ether?" he asks no one in particular, smacking his forehead.
As Radliff, the bingo entrepreneur, fishes for a bottle of Advil
in his golf bag, Casper begs Woody Moore, a former oil and gas
executive from San Diego, to raise the stakes in their game so
that he can have at least a shot at winning back the $20,000 he
has lost so far. "Are you ever going to let me out of the hole?"
Meanwhile, Hamilton is griping louder than anyone, saying how
hungover he is, how stiff he feels, how he can barely get his
fingers around a club. Looking pained, he drops his club, saying,
"This thing feels like a lead pipe." That gets the attention of
almost everyone who is deeply in debt to Hamilton. Rodman watches
silently as one guy after another sidles up and asks Hamilton to
double their bet. "I'll kick it up with anybody who wants to kick
it up--including No Balls Hamilton," says Novinskey.
Looking a little sickly, Hamilton says, "O.K., Dennis. Double us
up to a $1,000 Nassau." Then he nails down a $2,500 wager with
somebody else and makes a big deal about having lost two bets to
Cole. (He does not mention that he has swept two $10,000 Nassaus
against Cole and countless other propositions.) Finally, Hamilton
agrees to a $2,000 do-or-don't against Cole at a score of 80 for
himself, 83 for Cole. Hamilton also books a similar bet for
$10,000 with Casper--who goes on to spend the entire round making
bathroom stops and complaining about his sour stomach. In between
groans he fails to break the 85 he needs to cash in.
Hamilton makes a miraculous recovery, shooting an easy
70-something and winning enough money on the final day to turn
the weekend into an $85,000 bonanza. How did he pull out of his
postdrunk funk? At the awards banquet, on the deck behind the
lodge, he sips a Diet Coke and comes clean. "I didn't have but
one snakebite last night," he says. "I poured some on the floor
and left a couple back at the bar."
Cole is the big loser, dropping $25,000 and accepting his
fleecing with the stoicism of a Vegas sucker. The Bingo Boys
dropped $10,000 and acknowledge that it came as no surprise.
"We're dead money. Patsies. Suckers. Guys who are here to be
hustled," says Jones in a grim-sounding basso profundo. "We've
got the sickness."
Not as bad as Cole, who insists that he'll be back next year.
Nevertheless, the thousands he lost to Hamilton only solidify his
status as the host's favorite chump. Tonight, though, he'll have
the last laugh.
As waiters deliver dinner to the group, the gruff bail bondsman,
who had slipped away earlier, reappears in exactly the outfit
that Hamilton had requested in his voice message. Cole is dressed
only in naughty undergarments, with his bald head capped by a
blonde wig. The red lipstick smeared across his lips makes them
look as if they had been bloodied. "Ruh-usss," he says entering
the room. "Your bitch is here, and she has something special for
you." Following a moment of stunned silence, the place goes nuts.
Guys are hooting and hollering and taking pictures. Casper pushes
away his entree, saying he's lost his appetite. Cole makes a
beeline for Hamilton, waves his pantied derriere in his
tormentor's face, pulls down the elastic band and shows a
generous expanse of pale cheek. "You wanted your bitch, Russ,"
Cole says in an alarmingly high voice. "Now she's here. What do
you want to do with her?"
"Nothing," Hamilton says, sputtering with something between
laughter and embarrassment. "Absolutely nothing. Just get away
from me. I promise to never call you my bitch again."
Cole doesn't let up on his lap dance for a good five minutes,
having achieved what he couldn't on the course. He has gotten the
better of his host.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD KOROL NOSE JOB Anything, even a tee-box balancing act pitting Casper (left) against Radliff, was worthy of wagering.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD KOROL MONEY MATTERS Don't bring the checkbook. After tallying the day's results, winners were immediately paid in cash.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD KOROL UP THE ANTE At the winner-take-all poker game, the action-hungry Annual crew played for chips worth $20 each.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD KOROL
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD KOROL FRESH MEAT Casper had his airfare and expenses paid for at the Annual, but Mr. GQ still wound up losing money.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY TODD KOROL PENCIL WHIPPED At the 19th hole, (from left) Hamilton, Rodman and Cole do the math.
"You're not seeing gambling," says Rodman. "This is hustling. It's making bets you know you can win."
"An amateur will never dump a stroke," Hamilton says. "He can't
do it. I blow four to 10 every day."
Says Jones, "We're dead money. Patsies. Suckers. Guys who are
here to be hustled. We've got the sickness."