Rogers Stout has the gambler’s gifts—a titanic brain, an uncanny ability to read people, and a risk-taker’s daring. As an apathetic high school student who loves baseball but lacks a ninety-mph fastball, he knows that the game does not begin until the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand. But his life needs direction.
Everything changes the summer he is invited into the boisterous environment of an investment bank’s trading room, and to a gambling hall dive where he immediately wins big at poker, capturing the attention of his co-workers with his card-playing skills. Intrigued by trading markets, Rogers’ intellectual curiosity takes him to Wharton and then Wall Street, where he faces challenges as an outsider who thinks and acts differently from the white-shoe establishment. As Rogers plays his career hand, life plays another. Should he follow the temptress Elsbeth and her ravishing beauty, or Charlotte, his high-spirited first love?
An intriguing look at human aspiration and the interplay of honor, greed, fear, and individuality, the novel Make Me Even and I’ll Never Gamble Again reveals a time when a new generation upended the status quo on Wall Street and forever changed investing.
“By turns hilarious, insightful, and touching, Fine has written a coming-of-age story for the ages.” —Peter Lattman, vice chairman, The Atlantic
“[An] absorbing story of an aspiring Wall Street trader.” —Kirkus Reviews
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GROWING UP IN THE "CITY OF SEVEN HILLS"
FRIDAY NIGHTS. MY FATHER DID HIS BEST TO HAVE DINNER alone with me once a week. Usually, it was a Friday dinner at his club near the hospital. He felt comfortable there, at his usual table surrounded by men who knew him well and who would only nod greetings and then leave him to his solitary thoughts. Ever since I was a little boy, I could sense how others felt about him. I knew that he was well respected as a doctor who made a difference in his patients' lives. He loved being a doctor, and I was a very proud son. His other true love was his family, and that consisted of only one living person — me. My mother died when I was a young boy, a tragedy my dad and I shared but rarely talked about. It was an open wound that refused to heal.
Those dinners were important to both of us. Sometimes they were lighthearted, full of funny anecdotes about things that happened to us. Sometimes we just recalled good memories. And sometimes, like this evening, he was sullen or serious, making him feel surprisingly distant to me. The highlight reel of tonight's dinner was delivered to me in a soft monotone accompanied by forced eye contact. Tonight Dad would be all business: How was his son going to reach his full potential? I silently thought, what the hell is that?
My junior year in high school was approaching, and the doctor had decided it was time for his son to get serious about his future. There would be no sidetracking him. I could often control our evenings together with a quirky vignette, an interesting current event, or, if all else failed, I would lean forward and in my most sincere tone ask about one of his most challenging recent cases. In fact, no matter the topic, if you got his interest, if you could redirect him to medicine, philosophy, controversial people of note, or even baseball, his responses would be totally engaging. His wide-ranging mind, coupled with his myriad interests, was a wonder to observe. And, when he wanted to, Dad could really tell a good story — he could spin a yarn like Will Rogers. Unfortunately for me, tonight he was focused as a laser beam.
"Dad, I'm only sixteen. I'm not sure about anything, but I'll be fine."
"Rogers, you only have one chance in life. You must be aware of that. I want you to be happy, but I also want you to have self-respect. They go hand in hand. To achieve this you must try harder. Most everything comes too easily for you. In school you excel in subjects you care about while only putting out minimal effort. And if you don't care, or if you manufacture an excuse like you 'don't respect your teacher' or 'who needs Latin anyway,' your grades suffer. I want you to promise me you'll really try hard this year. That you'll really stretch yourself. Will you do that?" It was decision time. I knew if I placed my hands on his, gave him a sincere look, and committed to delivering excellence, he'd buy in. But I don't like lying, especially to him. After looking around for a waiter to interrupt this conversation and failing to find one, I leaned back, desperately calculating my alternatives. Unfortunately I couldn't think of a good one. I guessed it was time to accept the inevitable, to cut the bullshit and get serious. In truth this kind of reality has never been my strong suit. I would prefer to concentrate on what interests me and fluff off the rest.
What followed was a deep breath, a firm handshake, and, yes, a commitment to follow through and put forth the effort to excel. As the honorable doctor would say, "It's time for me to alter my priorities." Less poker, more studying. Reduced social life, more reading and research. And I even agreed to help out at his office on Saturdays. Yikes, I caved in! As I saw it that evening, my life was about to change forever.
I was too stunned to sulk on our drive home, and I also knew it would represent the kind of immaturity the doctor detested. Of course, Dad was right. Everything he was doing was guided by a desire to help his son improve himself. My self-confidence was so overwhelming that I was sure I could get top grades, slam the College Boards, and be accepted at a college that would make him proud. As sure as I was of that, I'll admit that I wasn't so sure of my ability to strive to succeed in areas that didn't interest me. I loved studying US history — all of it from day one to the present. I pictured myself as a character living through the growth and plot twists of America's past. Math came easily to me, but even if it was difficult, I enjoyed it simply because there was always a right or wrong answer. And reading. What's better than living with and learning from a fabulously well-written book?
But to achieve the kind of class rank that would please my father required excellence beyond history, math, and English. I would rather sit in a dentist's chair than in a Latin class. Where is the challenge in memorizing vocabulary and verb tenses? What a waste of time, I thought. I could perform if I could just stay awake the full hour of class. And then there was science. Here I can't concoct a valid excuse. It's just that for some unexplainable reason, I never cared enough to put forth the required effort. So there it is. The gauntlet had been thrown down. Would I pick it up? I'd have to find the motivation to succeed from within. Look around, I thought. There's no one here to help you.
For almost as long as I can remember, I've known I was on my own. I had no choice but to grow up fast. For the first years after my mother's death, I refused to accept the reality that I would never see her again. When I sat in the kitchen, supposedly hunkered down in study mode, I longed for her voice, her warmth, and most of all, for her presence. My father was supportive, but, in truth, most of the time he was dealing with patients in his office or at the hospital. So there I would sit with my books spread out on the kitchen table, alone and waiting for my dad to return, dreaming of what it would be like to smell dinner simmering on the stove while gabbing with my mother as she prepared a meal for her family.
* * *
After the short drive home, we adjourned to Dad's study to prepare for our traditional post–Friday dinner gambleathon. It was his idea, and we had been at it for years. I liked it because it was just the two of us. I also relished the chance to prove to us both that I could compete. The event was — what else could it be? — a one-on-one poker bake-off. We each had our own gambler's identity. He chose to be "Fast Doc" and I was "the Kid." Dad took his jacket off, loosened his tie, and prepared for the game. I poured him two fingers of scotch with no ice, in a wineglass, just the way he preferred it. The chips were properly allocated and the cards shuffled.
The rules of the gambleathon were simple. Each combatant received $100 in chips — twenty-five white dollar chips, nine blue five-dollar chips, and three red ten-dollar chips. Each ante was a dollar, and the game was dealer's choice. The maximum bet was five dollars, but on the last card you could bet up to the pot. The dealer alternated after each hand. The match lasted one hour unless both sides agreed to play longer. Whoever owned the most chips at the end was the winner. No real money exchanged hands. Gloating was permitted. Poor sportsmanship was discouraged.
The doctor was partial to five-card draw, guts to open. Sometimes he would deal five-card stud, one down, four up. I preferred seven-card stud, two down, four up, and then one more down. But my favorite game was two down followed by four up, low card down wild, last card up-or-down optionable for a three- to five-dollar penalty. I believed this was an advantage for me because of my self-perceived bluffing skills. Dad thought the enhancement of wild cards wasn't professional, but I reasoned we were playing poker and not performing open-heart surgery.
As the hour moved on, I kept pulling the better cards and my winnings were piling up nicely. Dad was usually talkative during these games, full of energy and wit, and I could feel his warmth engulf me. We would laugh together and tease each other and sometimes he would reach across the table and scruff my hair or hold me by my chin and smile while looking directly at me. This night, though, he seemed remote.
"Is something wrong? Is there some news you need to share with me?" I asked.
"No. It's not that. It's just that I'm concerned about you and it's distracting me. I love you so much. You are my only link to here and now, to reality. I feel like you have entered a place I don't understand. I have always believed that hard work ends with accomplishment. You have seemingly unlimited talent, but you don't care to see where it can take you. I guess I'm worrying that you will regret this later on."
We looked intently at each other. I was acutely aware that he had never before directly criticized me or flat out told me I was disappointing him. I didn't know how to react. What I did say was that he should have confidence in me, have faith, and I'd probably surprise him. What I didn't say was how much this conversation unnerved me. Then I briskly shuffled the cards and dealt out seven-card stud, low hole wild, five-dollar penalty for an up card. But Dad's speech had thrown me off, and I lost my concentration. I made a classic mistake because I got emotional and let my arrogance best me. Rather than being patient, I overplayed a hand, bluffing that I had matching wild cards. I paid for this arrogance by taking my last card up. Dad didn't cave. The doctor bested me with a flush, two clubs up and three down, and he won the gambleathon. The night that started so promisingly for me ended on a down note. We shared a quick hug and went to bed.
* * *
The weeks and months of my junior year raced by in a blur. I grew taller, unsuccessfully chased a few skirts, played some baseball, aced the college boards, and performed well in school. I even forced myself to be engaged in chemistry. This all resulted in a reasonable amount of satisfaction and an honors grade. In truth, all of my grades went according to plan except Latin. I think I tried, but I couldn't muster the energy to catch up. I never said I was perfect. The highlights of the year (in no particular order) were Dad's robust hug and congratulations on my academic performance, a couple of gutsy plays on the baseball field, a near score with the ultrahot Beverly Cummings, and then a sexual experience that I might decide to describe later on. Also, my poker winnings kept mounting from a variety of games.
In late spring I had my first meeting with the school college counselor. Mr. Hibbett was tall, gaunt, and slightly bent over, as if he wanted to scratch an itch below his knee. He had a habit of taking his glasses off and cleaning them with his tie while looking upward as if hoping for divine intervention. In school it was generally believed that he was a good man, quite professional. The only knock on Mr. Hibbett was that he worked harder for the exceptional students than the overall student body. I was unsure about how he would view my performance. I was warned that he expected consistency and effort from the school's better students. I decided to be modest, project sincerity, and, above all else, reach out for his help.
Our conference lasted a mere fifteen minutes. The good cop praised my GPA and my standardized-test scores. He told me that certain teachers gave me ultrahigh recommendations. He knew all about my father and the expectations that I was Ivy material. Then the bad cop appeared. What about last year's "spotty" performance, and could I explain, I quote, "How could someone of your caliber fail so miserably in Latin? It was downright disrespectful. Why should top colleges take a risk on someone who can't motivate himself to care?"
While he was lecturing me, I had a strong desire to challenge him to a poker contest for his positive support, but I remained quiet. I maintained my composure, recognizing that I had just learned a new life lesson: in the real world, excuses won't help carry you to the Promised Land. I left the meeting realizing the need for another angle to achieve my goal. I didn't tell my father about this conference, rather, that evening I asked if he could help me get a summer job at Prescott & Prescott, a well-respected local stock brokerage and investment banking firm. I knew that Julian Prescott was a good friend and patient of my dad's. I figured that if I was successful at poker, I probably would enjoy and excel at the biggest gambling casino of them all. The thought of taking this step excited me. Also, serious summer employment highlighted by a strong endorsement by a man like Julian Prescott had to enhance my college applications. At least I hoped so.
* * *
As the school season cruised to the finish line, our baseball team was locked in a second-place tie with our archrival. Like most of the guys on our team, I would have run through a stone wall to help us win. On nights before games, I would even consider praying. I weighed the odds of my prayers being a significant contribution to a victory but backed off, because as a nonbeliever I worried about cosmic backlash. I loved baseball and above all else wished that I was a better player. My fielding skills were decent. I could hit for average but not for power. I was constantly analyzing my swing, which looked good in the mirror, but when I made contact, all I could produce was a crisp single or an occasional weak double. I did have a live arm and pretty good control. Coach taught me to throw a slow, big breaking curve that I used for a changeup. Putting it all together, I wasn't good enough to be a starting pitcher, but I was effective enough to relieve for an inning or two.
Dad was an avid baseball fan. When we went to games together, he always bought a scorecard and kept precise records for every at bat and play. He counted pitches, balls, and strikes and kept track of every detail imaginable. He taught me to appreciate the slow pace of the game. He equated baseball to ballet. Little details excited him. His favorite plays were the rarely executed squeeze bunt and watching the drama of a runner on first trying to go to third on a single to right field.
Dad insisted on sitting behind home plate. Pure fastball pitchers didn't impress him. "They're only hurlers," he would say. He saved his respect for a successful pitcher who never really had an explosive fastball or, better yet, one whose dominant fastball had faded with age and who, through sheer determination, had taught himself to master a new arsenal to confound hitters. "These are the pitchers you could learn from, Rogers," he would prod me. "You're smart enough to do it. You just have to devote yourself!"
I did learn quite a lot sitting with Dad at those games, watching the better pitchers work over hitters and at times make them look silly. I went home and practiced and improved, but the truth was I couldn't throw hard enough, make the ball move enough, or keep hitters off balance enough to become a starter on our team. So in the biggest game of the year, I was relegated to right field and seventh in the batting order. I didn't embarrass myself in the field. I went one for four at bat, a soft liner over third. I ran hard on every play, hustled in the field, and cheered with heartfelt feelings for my teammates. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not produce the hit or the fielding play to actually influence the outcome of the game. We lost, five to three. After the game I sat on our bench with the other stunned players, mute and dispirited. I would remember this loss for years to come.
In between the last days of classes and final exams, Dad had arranged for me to meet Julian Prescott, whose office was in the most important building in the city. His firm occupied three entire floors. He had a massive corner office with sweeping views of the Ohio River and the neighboring state of Kentucky. His secretary greeted me with ramrod posture and a kisser that made me think she was related to the farmer's wife in American Gothic.
"You must be Dr. Stout's son," she said.
"Yes, thank you," I managed. "I have an appointment with Mr. Prescott."
"Well, of course you do. I'll see if he's available."
Julian Prescott rose from his chair, extended his hand, and told me that it was a pleasure to meet me. He must have been hired by central casting. Medium build with hazel eyes and wavy silver hair. Discreetly suntanned, fashionable black brogues, a pinstriped dark-gray suit, and a blue polka-dot tie. And his fabulous smile. I could instantly imagine a wealthy family entrusting him with its fortune or to provide corporate services for the family company.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Make Me Even and I'll Never Gamble Again"
Copyright © 2018 Jerrold Fine.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
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