Beating Sweetness

In the spring of 1990, I was a graduate student at UNLV, taking a class on the American short story and dealing at the Hilton. In the early stage of a swing shift I was on my first break, alone in a corner performing a balancing act, coffee cup in one hand, a pastry and a fork on the table, a collection of short stories open on my knee.

The conversation of nearby dealers drifted over: “Nice guy.”

“A George.”

Mostly I avoided break-room conversation, opting instead to study. But when one of the dealers said the name Walter Payton, I set my book aside.

“I saw one run,” I said, “where I swear every single player on the defense had at least one crack at tackling him, some maybe had two, and no one got him.”

I smiled at the memory. For a time, I’d been a pro football nut, and the run from scrimmage was my favorite play. I’d seen the great ones play—Jim Brown, Frank Gifford, Gale Sayers and O.J. Simpson. Pigskin tucked in the arm, shoulders leaned forward, eyes shadowed under the helmet, palm extended to ward off a tackler, the running back is a warrior in pads. And Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears was Warrior No. 1, responsible for some of the greatest runs from scrimmage I’ve ever seen.

I polished off my pastry and returned to the blackjack pit. The Hilton was the best casino job I’d had. Dealers worked 40 on the table and 20 off, tokes were consistent, and bosses were OK or better, as opposed to the dungeon masters in my past who’d been OK or worse or much worse.

I tapped out the relief dealer on my game. She whispered, “Give him the rack,” spread the cards and stepped away. The guy was a George, put up a red chip on the line in front of his bet. One shoe later, he was calling for a marker and moving to another table. By mid-shift I’d chased off a dozen more players. And then he landed on my game, a stack of reds in one hand and few greens in the other, Sweetness, dressed in a silk pinstriped suit.

The nickname came from teammates who admired his dynamic runs, some of them game-winning, many of them heart-stopping, all of them, well, sweet. Payton and Mike Singletary were the heart of the modern Bears, just as Bronko Nagurski had been in the club’s storied years. Unlike Nagurski, Payton wasn’t an imposing hulk of a man, no broken nose, no cinder-block jaw, just a pleasant face on a body built for speed.

He smiled and asked how I was doing. I told him fine.

“No,” he said, “are you lucky?”

There’s no explaining those streaks a dealer goes on. The numbers just align themselves on a given night, and the dealer can’t lose. That was me. Even though it was dead against the house policy, I said that I’d been beating everyone’s brains in. I couldn’t lie, not to Sweetness. Still smiling, he said that he’d been on a run and that mine was over.

“Good luck,” I said, meaning it and hoping he’d have the longest run of his life.

There we were, Mr. Average Dealer and the man who held the NFL career rushing record, the green felt between us, the challenge laid down. I’d dealt to celebrities and sports stars over the years, some fine people, some arrogant, some demanding, some plain jerks. Telly Savalas, in his Kojak days, used me one night at the Maxim to put on a show for his entourage, slamming hundred-dollar bills down on the layout as if daring me to win. He lost, and he left in a huff. Robert Goulet was pleasant enough, but when it came to helping out the help with a tip, he was 100 percent Canadian, and as we dealers said, “Nothing tips in Canada, except a canoe.” Sweetness, on the other hand, was just a guy, humble but confident.

He started with a $10 bet and never advanced beyond that. If he’d won a few hands, which I hoped he would, he might have stacked some chips in the square, but the house percentage took over. We talked about football and luck and odds and shared a couple of laughs as his pile of chips dwindled. He never complained.

Being a Vietnam vet, I’m a tough judge of others, but I knew in a few hands that even if Sweetness hadn’t been one of the greatest football players of all time, if instead he’d been just another guy who answered his country’s call, I would gladly have shared a foxhole with him. Nonetheless, for half an hour I did what a platoon of defensive players hadn’t managed; I not only stopped Walter in his tracks, I threw him for a loss.

He got up, smiling, and tossed me his last red check.

“Thanks,” he said. “Next time I’ll listen.”