For the Love of the Game

Written by Sage Kemmerly

The trumpets announce the start of the races as people file through the turnstiles into the massive stadium. Lines gather at the betting windows as young and old alike fidget with their money, eager to place their first bet and win. Matt Lagerstrom checks his program booklet, glances at the television monitor above, scribbles some quick notes on a small piece of paper, and hands his money to the teller.

“I’m betting three bones on ‘Fist Pump’ and ‘Stormy Kentucky,’ the two and the four horse,” says Lagerstrom, 29. “Quinella bet, so those horses need to come in first and second in any order.”

Lagerstrom, an Emeryville resident, goes to the Golden Gate Fields horse track in North Berkeley every Sunday and sometimes during the week if he has the day off. He doesn’t always tell his girlfriend he’s going.

“It’s my church on Sunday,” he says. “This is where I come to pray.”

Coincidentally, it’s a popular Sunday event. Sunday is Dollar Day, the one day when the entrance fee, beers, and hot dogs are all one dollar. After he fetches another beer, Lagerstrom begins to plan his bet for the next race. With nine races that day, he’s hoping to win all of them or, at the very least, win enough to get a couple more beers. He’s already won the first race.

“So that’s forty-four bucks off a three dollar bet,” says Lagerstrom, as he smiles and fans out the cash in his hand. “Now we drink and win!”

Lagerstrom has been a regular here for only a year, but he’s gambled before and knows exactly what he’s in for.

“I’ve won twenty-three hundred at blackjack,” he says, smiling. “Gambling’s just fun, and it’s crazy how much there is to horse racing. How many races that day, what the horse has been doing the past couple races, and that sort of thing.”

With a hardcover copy of Walter Gibson’s The Horseracing Formula in hand,  he checks his program and makes more notes. Lagerstrom is one of many young adults who are interested in learning how to “play the game” and it’s clear he’s interested in more than just throwing his money around. Though he works full-time as a concrete supervisor and makes enough to live comfortably, he’s not a tall better. As is the case with many gamblers, he likes to win, but it’s the experience he’s after.

“Sometimes I come here by myself and end up hanging out with some of the old dudes downstairs,” Lagerstrom admits. “We have a good laugh together; they give me pointers. I showed a guy this book and he wanted to check it out for himself.”

Jeff Wilder, another gambling enthusiast, hosts poker games in Daly City with a circle of players who range in age from early twenties to early sixties.

Of course, that’s just our ‘age’,” says Wilder. “Our behavior is young adult at best.”

Wilder, in his late thirties, says he became a serious player as an undergrad in his mid-twenties. His game of choice is 15-30 hold’em poker. Like Lagerstrom, Wilder admits he plays for the love of the skill, betting on games like poker, blackjack, sports, and track handicapping (the practice of betting not only which horse will win, but in proper order).

“In my experience and, generally speaking, younger players are much more aggressive in pushing a bet, trying to win without necessarily having the best set,” explains Wilder.

Wilder mentions that gambling is often the most socially acceptable outlet for thrill-seeking addictive personalities, and can therefore be looked over while secretly manifesting as a problem for some. Although sometimes even non-regular players bet big in the hopes to win big.

“One time, I went to Vegas with the last three hundred dollars that I had and I lost it all to a Vietnamese dealer on my 21st birthday,” says Rhys Alvarado, an SF State student and food blogger. “I sat there for a while. I couldn’t resist. I had to beat her, but she beat me.”

As he leaves the bleachers at Golden Gate Fields, Lagerstrom recaps his wins and losses of the day. Having already won forty dollars, then thirty, then ten, plus the cost of bets, he’s not walking away with stuffed pockets, but it’s enough, he decides, to take his girlfriend out to dinner.

“My last race I bet on a feeling and that didn’t work out so well,” admits Lagerstorm in true player candidness. “Usually I use a daily racing form and go from there. I’m kind of sad; I don’t want to leave.”

The hook of always wanting to win is what keeps people coming back to the table, the track, the computer, or however they bet, but sometimes it’s the experience gamblers seek more than the outcome. And with so many betting options to choose from in the Bay Area, as with all thrilling experiences, it can easily become a habit.

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