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Books/No Wiseguys Just Guys

Ex-journalist Donald Evans turns his stint as a gambler and bookie into a debut novel.

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Donald Evans

WHEN Tue 2/13, 7 PM

WHERE Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia

INFO 773-227-4433

WHEN Fri 2/16, 7 PM

WHERE Oak Park Cigar, 823 S. Oak Park in Oak Park

INFO 708-848-6909

Despite everything Donald Evans knows about being a bookie, he doesn't know the first thing about busting kneecaps. "I gambled for a long time, hung out with people that gambled, took bets myself," he says. "And nobody got scratched." In his experience, bookies were always guys with day jobs and a sideline in vice, "street-corner types that set up shop and made allusions to other guys higher up that were calling the shots. But as the years went on, and I knew these guys well, I could see there were no other guys. These guys were the guys."

Evans's debut novel, Good Money After Bad, about a gambler on a losing streak, reflects a world he knew intimately. Set in Chicago during the heat wave of 1995, it's the story of Chance Skinner, a 26-year-old who lives in Wrigleyville and places sports bets on a daily basis. While Chance resembles Evans at the same age, he ends up donating a kidney to make good on a debt. Evans, now 41, never got that desperate: "I have all my internal organs," he says.

The manuscript, which Evans started in 1997 and finished in 2000, drew interest right out of the gate. On the recommendation of Tobias Wolff, who'd been Evans's fiction writing teacher at Syracuse, mega-agency International Creative Management picked up Evans as a client. But Evans says that when he refused to rewrite certain sections, make them more "wiseguy," publishers lost interest. Eventually ICM stopped shopping the manuscript.

Evans moved to London in 2002, when his wife was transferred there, and started a second novel, a romantic comedy. In 2004 they had a son, and the following year they moved to Detroit, where they lived in a Marriott Courtyard for eight months. While his wife and son were asleep, Evans would "sneak out" to the bar across the parking lot. The bartender there introduced him to another regular, Tim Dugdale, who wound up snagging Good Money for his small publishing house, Atomic Quill Press. The book comes out February 15.

Growing up in Belmont-Cragin, Evans came by his compulsion honestly. His father shot pool and two of his uncles were regular sports gamblers. One of them even helped Evans place his first bet with a bookie--$25 on a football game--when he was 12 years old. He continued making bets all through high school. "I'd call up my uncle, he'd read me a line"--a way of betting that focuses on an event's outcome rather than the point spread--"and I'd make a bet," Evans says. "I was cleaning up on the USFL."

He went on to study journalism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His parents covered his tuition, but he worked part-time at a gas station to make spending money. During a three-month period his senior year, he won $2,000 betting on baseball and football--enough to quit the gas station. He graduated in 1987 and landed a job as a reporter for community papers in Lombard and Villa Park. Combined with what he earned covering high school sports as a freelancer for the Sun-Times, Evans was pulling down about $400 a week. His bets went up accordingly.

"At some point I was just routinely betting about $1,000 a baseball game and betting a bunch of games every night," Evans says. "It seems preposterous now and would've seemed preposterous before. But in the moment, it made perfect sense." Gambling "seemed like a short cut. I wanted to be a writer and a journalist, but I also wanted to travel the world, to have the kinds of experiences and adventures that cost money. And when you're working at the Lombardian and want to see Europe, it's hard to figure out how you're going to do that."

The bookies always gave Evans a week to pay, so even when he lost he was just one winning streak away from solvent. "There'd be times when I won 14, 15 games in a row and money was just piling up," he says, "and then on a Sunday I'd pick 11 games and lose every one of them." He never bet on high school sports but only because "they didn't offer a line on the preps." His picks had nothing to do with being a fan or even knowing much about the teams. On any given weekday he'd head over to Arnold's, a greasy spoon near his apartment in Wrigleyville, open the paper, and check the spreads. "I'd bet on Xavier, Bowling Green, Hofstra," he says. "College sports were only marginally interesting to me. Before I opened the paper that day, I couldn't tell you where Hofstra was located. Idaho, maybe? New Jersey? But Hofstra's a 30-point underdog. That's a lot of touchdowns." He knew basically nothing about the team, but by the time he'd finished his ham and cheese omelet, he was convinced they could never lose that badly. "You love Hofstra," he says. "You'd go to the wall for Hofstra. And you're telling everybody that'll listen how Hofstra's a lock."

If you have a bookie, Evans says, you become a magnet for closet gamblers. He placed bets for other people, covering them if they came up short, and eventually started hearing from some of them two or three times a day. "Me and another guy, we got together and said, 'Why don't we just try to fund this and keep all the bets?'" Within a year the operation was bigger than either Evans or his partner had anticipated. He says they had 50 clients, some of whom neither of them knew. If there were too many bets to handle, they passed some on to other bookies. Evans continued placing personal bets through his own bookie, so he never knew how much he was actually making, but he says he had more cash on hand than at any other time in his life--as much as $10,000, stored in a shoebox in the basement of his apartment building.

On the first day of the NCAA men's basketball tournament in 1993, the police paid Evans a visit. "Seven or eight vice squad guys bust in," Evans says. "They came up to the door with some fake flowers and my roommate says, 'Don, there's some guys here to see you.' So I wound up getting hauled down to the Maxwell Street vice lockup and spent eight or ten hours there. My bookie came and got me out. He was working at the courthouse on State Street, and he told me not to do anything, that he'd take care of it. When the court date came around, they just dismissed it."

That brush with the law was enough to convince Evans he needed to reevaluate his life. "It seemed my whole life was dependent on what was going to happen between seven and midnight," he says. He was ready to change professions, too. "Some people are built to be journalists, they're great at it. I wasn't a great journalist." He applied to graduate schools for fiction writing and received a fellowship to attend Syracuse (where he met his wife). He vowed to stop gambling, but "unfortunately I lost a couple of student loans before it was really it." Then, during his second year, he says, he simply outgrew gambling. "There's a certain heroic aspect to winning: you have all this money and it's kind of like your limelight. I got to the point where I didn't like that anymore, even if I could get it."

Evans has settled into a more predictable routine, trying to write every day either early in the morning or late at night. He's completed a third novel, is polishing up a collection of Christmas stories, and has started a sequel to Good Money After Bad, set five years later. Once a week he teaches public speaking at the Westwood College near O'Hare, and he spends the rest of his afternoons hanging out in the "parent parlor" at Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church in Oak Park, where his son is in a playgroup. Occasionally he gets some action, but he bets like a dad now, with a square in a Super Bowl pool.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): A. Jackson.

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