From Biography to Bruce Willis: Lay the Favorite’s Beth Raymer on Bets Worth Taking

Beth Raymer, author of Lay the Favorite
Beth Raymer, author of Lay the Favorite

For four years, I worked in the sports gambling underworld. In cut-offs and halter-top, and with my dog, Otis, panting at my side, I ran around Las Vegas, New York City, and the Caribbean, stuffing enormous sums of money into my Jansport backpack, making and taking bets, paying and collecting debts. My bosses made their living betting on the NBA, NFL, PGA, NCAA basketball, NCAA football, tennis, WNBA, the Little League World Series, Miss America Pageants, and the National Spelling Bee. My job was barely on this side of the law, and sometimes not.

It was tremendously difficult for me to give up the high-risk/high-reward life of professional gambling. There was too much about it that I loved: the money, the unconventional lifestyle. The beachfront villa equipped with a maid and cook. I knew, however, from spending so much time with my bosses and colleagues, that even the most successful gamblers are incapable of living healthy lives. Unless you want to end up a felon, you have to get in and get out.

So I left the business. But for an unemployed, rootless, twenty-eight-year-old without one square job to put on her résumé, the world was not a pretty place. My sister was in jail; my dad, who did have a gambling problem, was heading there. My peers were graduating from law and business school. They had professions they were passionate about. Most of them were starting families. What did I have?

“Stories!” Jeremy said. Jeremy was a reporter, who would soon become my husband. “You have so many stories,” he said. “And you love telling them. Why don’t you apply to the nonfiction program at Columbia?”

I had an associate’s degree from Palm Beach Community College, a bachelor’s degree from Florida State, and I had never, ever, crafted a story. Columbia? I thought. And then I thought: Why not? Really. What did I have to lose?

Jeremy and I sat at the computer. We typed out the handwritten letters I’d sent him from Curacao. Stories I’d shared about my gambling bosses, their wives, the women with whom they were having affairs, ways we hid money, random busts by the Feds, and other day-to-day goings-on of an offshore sportsbook. We edited them, referred to them as “dispatches,” and submitted them as my writing sample.

Two months later, I received my acceptance letter.

Was I in over my head? Yes. Did I feel inadequate on a daily basis? Absolutely. Would I be able to pay back my student loans before I died? Probably not. But it didn’t matter. Columbia forced me to carve out a place for myself in this world. There’s that tired argument of whether MFA programs actually “work,” whether writing can actually be taught. I am living proof that it can be. I never would’ve been able to write a book had I not gone through that program. The friends I made, and the professors who believed in me, pushed me to translate my experience into a narrative. I put down my thoughts, and I produced. Which is to say, finally, I had something to bring the table.

In my last year of graduate school, I sold Lay the Favorite. In 2011, it was made into a movie. On the first day of shooting, I walked into an exact replication of my old gambling office, from the televisions, to the lighting, to the stacks of money piled on the desk. The only difference was that Catherine Zeta-Jones was there, playing my bosses wife. And Bruce Willis was my boss.

“One Two Three … action!,” the director said. In bounced Rebecca Hall in cut-offs and halter-top, with Otis (played by a rescue dog named Roscoe) by her side.  Tossed over Rebecca’s shoulder was my old Jansport backpack. The same one I had used to transport gambling money, and, later, to haul books around Columbia’s campus, had somehow found its way to Hollywood.

I watched all of this from my little corner of the set. I stood very still, wanting to take in and remember everything. If there is a theme to my book, it’s the same theme of my life: Take chances. Stop worrying about outcomes. Act on your passion then turn that passion into more opportunities. If you’re going to bet on anything in this lifetime, bet on yourself.