02/15/2017 12:41PM

Tourneys covered like Jagger


We take all kinds of pills

To give us all kind of thrills,

But the thrill we've never known

Is the thrill that'll getcha

When you get your picture

On the cover of the Rolling Stone

Handicapping contests weren’t exactly on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine this week, but they did manage to grace the pages therein.

I grew up in a media milieu. My father, in addition to being a disc jockey and rock-and-roll historian, was an avid collector of books and magazines. Among his prized possessions was a complete collection of the first 10 years of Rolling Stone magazine, including the debut issue with John Lennon in fatigues. To have my current beat mentioned in Rolling Stone seems like a sure sign that handicapping contests are ready for prime time. The piece has created a positive buzz since it was tweeted by Rolling Stone to its over 5.5 million followers.

The piece covered the 2017 National Handicapping Championship. Writer Alex Scordelis did an admirable job hemmed in by a tight word count. He took what you might call a “fish bowl” approach: He was on the outside looking in at a number of the characters in the contest world, including skull worshipper Dennis Johnson, dancer-turned-horseplayer Linda Rodriguez, the father-son combo of Basil and Alex DeVito, and two-time final table contestant Danny Kovalesky. In the end, he presented an appealing cross section of players that defied common stereotypes about horseplayers.

For several years, the NTRA’s Jim Mulvihill has been tasked with finding ways to garner mainstream media interest in the NHC. It’s been a pet project of his to find a mainstream publication to do a piece about the personalities and culture of the contest world.

Mulvihill has known Scordelis and journalist Jason Diamond for several years, thinking in the back of his mind that both men would understand what was special about the contest scene. When Diamond was hired as the first-ever sports editor for Rolling Stone, Mulvihill saw the opportunity to make his pitch, with Scordelis in mind for the assignment.

“The NHC is a hard thing to visualize if you’ve never been,” Mulvihill said, “but if you’ve ever seen these fantastic documentaries about spelling bees or scrabble tournaments, there are parallels: These are brilliant and obsessive people who are also interesting characters.”

The piece hasn’t been without a little criticism. One wag on Twitter commented, “treating horseplayers like zoo animals is not a good take.” I must admit that my knee-jerk reaction was to be a little critical as well – before admitting to myself that my quibbles had more to do with envy than anything else. I wished I had written it.

There’s only so much you can do in a short piece and the fact is that for many, this type of detached perspective is exactly what the larger audience needs. Before you can get too into the details about the inner workings of a handicapping contest, you have to know what a handicapping contest is. Scordelis’s piece explains contests, presents the characters, and captures the camaraderie that make in-person events great (he also gets extra credit for pop culture references to Katniss Everdeen and The Sopranos).

I’m always amazed at how many of the younger players I interview in the pages of Daily Racing Form cite the TV show “Horseplayers” as the main reason they got involved in contest play. Perhaps in a few months I’ll hear a new line about why a certain player chose to get involved in tournaments: “I read about it in Rolling Stone.”