WIMBLEDON, England — “Can you read that?” I ask the woman behind the counter.
“Let’s see,” she says, fingering the little pink paper. She squints.
“My handwriting,” I say, “it isn’t . . .”
“Not to worry. I’ve seen worse.”
She finally smiles. “OK. How much do you want to wager on . . .” she squints again “…Serena Williams?”
“How much?” I say. “Uh . . .”
I should confess right here that I am not a betting man. But if I were a betting man, this would be the way to do it. Nice British person, hands you a pen and paper, you write down a tennis player, what you think that player will do at Wimbledon, and you hand it over, like a spelling quiz.
Except you give the teacher money.
“What’s the minimum bet?” I ask.
“Fifty pence,” she says.
“What’s that in American dollars?”
“About 80 cents.”
“I’ll wager a pound,” I say proudly.
She rolls her eyes. Big spender.
“Is that to win the whole tournament,” she asks, “or just today’s match?”
“You can bet a match?”
“You can bet a set if you like.”
A set? Wow. Can I bet if the first serve goes in, too? Can I bet the number of flashbulbs popping when Anna Kournikova bends over?
“Let’s take Serena to win it all.”
“Fine then,” she says. She begins marking up my little pink slip.
“You get a lot of people making tennis bets in here?” I ask.
She glances up beyond the counter, to the half dozen hard-looking men leaning on stools, checking their racing forms, smoking cigars.
“Not really,” she says.
“Ah,” I say.
Placing a bet …the write way
This is a place called Ladbrokes, one of countless betting shops in England where you can place a wager on the horses, the dogs, or the tennis players. It is all perfectly legal.
It is even legal for the players to place wagers on themselves. That’s right. In years past, several surprise Wimbledon winners have increased their earnings by putting their money where their rackets are. (I am waiting for the day when a player wins Wimbledon, falls to his knees, and kisses the pink slip that had him a 90-1 underdog.)
“Ever have Pete Sampras come in here?” I ask the woman.
She gazes again at the men with their cigars, the men in cheap hats, the guy in an undershirt with tufts of hair pushing out from his shoulders.
“Not yet,” she says.
“Ah,” I say.
(By the way, before you start writing letters, yes, I am known as an outspoken opponent of gambling. Especially casino gambling. Especially in Detroit. And no, I am not softening my stance. Nor am I suggesting that people bet tennis. I am merely conducting an experiment.
(Also, I am on an expense account.)
Besides, the thing that impresses me the most isn’t the money, the odds, the fact that Sampras is 5-4 to win it all, Agassi 8-1, Todd Martin 50-1. Nor am I impressed that, when I look up, one TV screen has Martina Hingis on it, and the other has greyhounds running around a track.
No. What impresses me is that these bets are taken — by hand! You write your pick with a little pen they give you. I actually write, “I choose Serena Williams to win the Wimbledon tournament.” And below it, I write, “I choose Patrick Rafter to win the tournament.”
And they take that! You can write it any way you want. You can print, “I believe, if my senses are accurate, that the gods favor Mr. Agassi to capture another Wimbledon title.” And they’d take that! They might even put it on the bulletin board — as soon as the guy with the cigarette butt in his teeth steps away.
Disputes over bets? Not in England
“What happens if there’s a dispute over handwriting?” I ask.
“A dispute?” the woman says.
“Yeah. Like some guy makes his S’s like his G’s, and he comes in and says,
‘Look, I picked Agassi! I won!’ And you say, ‘No, you picked Sampras.’ “
The woman shrugs. “It doesn’t happen.”
Clearly, we are not in America.
“By the way,” she says, “you have to wait until the tournament is over to cash this, because you picked men and women on the same slip.”
“Gee. What if I wanted them separate?” I ask.
“No problem.” She takes a pen and crosses out one bet, then writes it on another slip!
“You can do that?” I say. “That won’t cause a dispute?”
“Nah,” she says.
“Don’t you have computers?”
“I wish,” she says.
And she hands me my two slips. Later, they will be rendered useless when I forget they are in my pocket and I put my pants in the washing machine.
For now, I say good-bye.
“If Serena or Patrick come in, don’t tell them about this, OK?” I say.
She looks out at the grizzled men who are watching a horse race on the TV screen. As it finishes, two of them kick the wall, and another spits.
“My lips are sealed,” she says.
“Ah,” I say.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).