By Hunter S. Thompson
Page 2 columnist

There are many harsh lessons to be learned from the gambling experience, but the harshest one of all is the difference between having Fun and being Smart. It is the difference between Winning and Losing, on most days, and the second half of the Maryland-Duke game on Saturday was a lesson for fun-Loving Losers.

Saturday has never been kind or forgiving to these people. They are taught all their lives that Saturday night is when even fools can cut loose and take risks that would be out of the question on any other night: Get drunk, shoot guns, dance naked in public parks, or even crouch in your basement and Hack into the Pentagon database ...

If Sunday is the Lord's day, then Saturday belongs to the Devil. It is the only night of the week when he gives out Free passes to the Late show at the Too Much Fun Club.

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Not everybody believes this, of course, and the doubters are not without wisdom. It is no accident that the Dog-racing tracks do a booming business on Saturday or that people swarm into nightclubs and dance to a feverish beat. Why not? At least they'll have plenty of company ...

Indeed, even the Jails will be crowded, and the lines will be long at neighborhood check-cashing windows. Nobody feels guilty for things that happen on Saturday -- not even the ones who fly off to Las Vegas and get married at Midnight by a Preacher who claims to be Elvis and fondles the bride while he talks. What the hell? It goes with the territory, these days. We are Modern people, and we like to do Modern things.

Ho ho. That is dangerous gibberish in some circles, and the Gambling fraternity is one of them. There is nothing Modern about doing dumb things for dumb reasons, and nothing new about the feelings of shame and disgrace that come down on people who think it is "Fun" to bet against Duke in a high-stakes basketball game that tips off on the last Saturday night of the season -- not even when you're getting 5 points and your hot-shooting team jumps out to a 22-point lead before halftime. Take my word for it.

It was just about then, in fact, when the game shifted gears and I began feeling Fear in my heart. I looked around the room and saw gloom on the faces of those who were betting against me.

Byron Mouton
Maryland 's Byron Mouton felt the gloom described by Hunter S. Thompson.

They laughed bitterly when I said I was nowhere near comfortable with my bet. "Those swine are still dangerous," I assured them. "This game is too weird to be true. We are seeing a false dawn, sure as hell."

They snickered. A few even paid up and left, unable to tolerate the prospect of suffering for 20 more minutes in a trap with the corpse of Duke. One beating was Enough, they said, but two in a row would be utterly Unacceptable.

I shrugged and turned back to the game, but I set that money in a separate pile. There was no doubt in my mind that something horrible was going to happen, and it would happen very soon. Nothing in Nature was any more certain than that Duke would come out of its stupor and make a desperate run at me.

It had already started, in fact, and I shuddered when I saw the clock showing five or six minutes still left before halftime. That's impossible, I thought. The game should be over by now. The timekeeper must be on the Take. I slumped in my chair and squawked helplessly as I watched Maryland turning to jelly in a blizzard of dumb fouls and turnovers. My 22-point lead was getting chopped up like a pig falling into a meat-grinder.

By halftime I'd abandoned all hope of winning -- or even Losing by less than 5 points. I saw panic in the eyes of the Maryland guards as they brought the ball up the floor. Coach Williams was screaming desperately, but his wild cries fell on deaf ears. He knew he was beaten, and so did I.

The mood in my kitchen had changed drastically. They were still down by 16, but they sensed a wild turn of the tide. I saw smiles on their faces for the first time all afternoon. The Sheriff was feeling so bold that he offered to double his bet. Benecio Del Toro called in on the phone and also doubled down. I grimly accepted all offers, despite what I knew in my heart.

It was a matter of Honor, I felt, and also a deep-set Tradition.... No bet goes unchallenged in This room.

Whoops! Have I forgotten to say that I'd already won all my bets on the Arizona-Mich. State game? Yes, I did -- but things like that are easily lost in the horror of seeing a 27-point lead (with the spread) disappear right in front of your eyes. It seems impossible -- especially to a very good team that had just beaten Stanford and Illinois -- but Maryland was a special case this year, and only a fool would have bet real money on them to hold a big lead for more than 33 seconds against Duke in a serious game. They curled up like worms in a bonfire.

But so what? All that matters in the sports-gambling business is the score at the end of the day, and if you don't win Two out of Three, it is time to quit the business. They will call you a hopeless Loser and your wife will file for Divorce. Strange men in black suits will show up and kick down your door at night. That is the fate of Losers in this country.

Dr. Hunter S. Thompson's books include Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72, The Proud Highway, Better Than Sex and The Rum Diary. His new book, Fear and Loathing in America, has just been released. A regular contributor to various national and international publications, Thompson now lives in a fortified compound near Aspen, Colo. His column, "Hey, Rube," appears each Monday on Page 2.