Seventeen miles north of the Las Vegas Strip, the man sits alone in the house built from his winnings and pounds away at his computer. He’s never been married, has few friends and has only an old dog for companionship. At night he dreams of a home near the beach and teaching English classes in high school. But for now, this man nicknamed “Boston” continues the life he has led for over 30 years —professional sports gambler.
“I’m not very good at life but I’m very good at college basketball,” he half-smiles, half-grimaces. Boston is one of the heaviest, most constant presences in Scott Pearson Eberly’s new documentary The Best of It, an exposé of the professional sports gambling lifestyle. Examining career gamblers and betting forum site operators, old school Vegas mobsters and casino consultants, the film seeks to explore as many facets of the clandestine world of professional gambling as possible. But it only truly comes into its own when it focuses on two of its subjects.
The first is Boston, the prototypical self-hating gambler trapped in a vicious cycle of betting and misery. Curt and combative, he lashes out at his fellow gamblers, not even batting an eyelash when one of them kills himself alongside his wife. He obviously wants and needs to escape, he just doesn’t know how. The other subject, Dink, is the polar opposite. Blunt and knowing, he embodies the professional gambler who loves what he does. An ex-bookmaker from Queens, his eccentric personality and obsessive work ethic led to his being featured in Beth Raymer’s memoir Lay the Favorite which was eventually adapted into a Hollywood movie. (In case you’re wondering, they got Bruce Willis to play him.) The Boston/Dink dichotomy beautifully illustrates the romantic allure of gambling: You might be destroyed, but you just might be one of the ones who make it out on the other side intact.
The Best of It is simply too scattershot for it to achieve any kind of weight. The historical investigations into Las Vegas gambling, the rise of computerized gambling and even the mafia’s involvement are too underdeveloped, too distracted by its various character studies. And the character studies are too disparate for any real theme to emerge between them other than the generic perils of gambling. The nonexistent tonal control leads to several stunning revelations — such as the aforementioned suicide pact — to come off as exploitative instead of as shocking and impactful. A more interesting documentary might have focused on only one or two of these gamblers instead of using several of them as a framing device for exploring organized sports gambling as a movement.