The macabre, bloody fun of country gambling


*Name has been changed to protect identity.

Of all the creatures we have domesticated, we disport with chickens the most cruelly.

Last year an odd resolution in the State House of Representatives that would have honored cockfights as a “cultural activity,” brought out the most entertaining testimony of the session from seasoned country uncles. Much of what they said was correct. Noting the historical record, it is true that staging dumb foul to fight for entertainment is indeed a cultural event, with clearly defined ritual and social norms: that Honest Abe Lincoln got his nickname from his fairness in the cockpit; that the intestines of Captain Cook were used to line a cockfight ring before the rest of the body was buried at sea; that after a dehydrated day hacking at overhead razor sharp sugar stalks, immigrants to Hawai‘i have gotten a macabre kick out of fighting chickens by blowing their plantation scrips on homegrown livestock. It is also true that the vices associated with fighting chickens are real problems – if one needs to launder a few thousand dollars during the weekend, a chicken fight is where to be.

The practice continues despite several state laws banning organizing and betting and federal law passed in 2007 that made it a crime to transfer cockfighting implements across state or national borders. Chickens and humans can still travel freely, and there is no shortage of provincial crafters who specialize in the creation of gaffs and knives of various sorts. During long rides through the country, I was informed that “there are gaff fights, knife fights, and Mexican gaff fights. Out here we mainly see knife fights. These things are razor sharp on both sides, about 2 and a half inches long,” as my guide motioned his pinky finger in the eerie curve of a velociraptor claw. When I asked what they were made out of, he replied, “matters who’s making it – usually from suspension springs.” One quickly realizes that this is an activity almost impervious to legislation as all one needs to fight a cock is another cock and some modified auto body parts. As for a “Mexican gaff,” apparently the chicken version of Norteños vs. Soreños, it involves an inch-long mini ice pick and protracted stabbing.

***

My contact into the glamorous world of fighting chickens was Benson*, an unpretentious, stocky fellow who despite cultural shifts toward altered racial nomenclature, is still quite comfortable self-defining as “Oriental.” Fight scheduling can be a sporadic endeavor as attendees and organizers have very real concerns about avoiding detection and prosecution. For Benson and I, our first trip to an event was a three-hour mission from town to the back roads of Wai‘anae Valley, near to where “that Samoan pig farmer got convicted of slavery,” a friend later pointed out. Although unsuccessful and dispersed due to fears of a police raid, Benson delivered a three hour master’s course in fighting chickens, from the two year preparation (every day) and the cost of feed (it can add up), to the careful, almost loving attention placed on a dying bird by a trained handler during a fight. It was then that I learned the local nuances of a practice as old as chicken-and-rice-for-dinner. We rescheduled for the next weekend.

Six days later, there was little chance of catching any sleep as I was up free-associating and googling the various ways people are injured or killed in gambling here on the islands: One guy burned in his car for deserting a debt; one guy shot on the side of the road after a big win; an old man whose calf was “butterflied open” by a wayward fighting chicken with a customized razor affixed to its leg. The threat of being maimed or killed took all the joy out of participant observation methodology. I attempted some self-motivation by remembering one of life’s inconvenient truths: that if you follow all the rules, you probably won’t have any fun.
**
Summer heat rose up from the road as we took off for the fight. Honolulu’s fringes progressively crumbled in the rear-view mirror, from high rises to mid-century suburbs to sodden fields of dense vegetation. These in turn gave way to a flanking of undeveloped private property and the onshore sea. The land became spare enough to where one could actually imagine a dark, mysterious spot on the satellite map, some far away place on this densely populated island where our phones’ service indicators would be out of bars. Then the windmills began to rhythmically slash at the horizon – New Age shining Pololu protecting the northernmost point of the island – and we took a hard turn down a dirt road.

Even after the previous trip and all I had read, I still had in mind that a cockfight would be an after-dark, furtive affair: squatting men betting and drinking and sweating out the brutal suspense under the cover of night. Benson cut the wheel sharply, taking us off the road and down a dirt one-lane in the broad daylight, navigating by an instinct that removed us from the state highway. “I bet it’s there,” I said like an idiot as we passed a thicket and a herd of pickup trucks parked at odd angles came into view, like nervous horses ready to bolt.

Once one knows what to look for, a derby fight in the country is one of the worst kept secrets on the rock. We walked with half a dozen other local guys through the property, passing poi dogs loosely leashed to hand-built sheds and feral cocks who kicked up the alkali dust in their wake. Dozens of triangle-shaped pens were in neat rows, with chickens leashed by the leg to their bases, just long enough so they could jump to the top and crow their gizzards’ content. Men in surf trunks and work boots carried coop boxes holding three chickens each, the size of a disco-era subwoofer. There were several tailgates open for party mode in the field, and the unmistakable tang of pork adobo lingered in the air. Seemingly innocuous as a country picnic.

Beneath the surface of the country gathering, I sensed a deep well of transgressive danger. Maybe it was the ruddy local boys exiting a lifted truck that looked like something driven by a Libyan rebel? The flash of 3-inch blades being attached to strutting chickens? The row of men resembling an outdoor police booking station waiting for action? In retrospect, the veil of lawful safety was lifted when I caught sight of a thin, elderly Asian woman who sat in a plastic chair in the center of the ring, lazily smoking a Marlboro and eyeing the entrants as the sun slanted over the pit. I avoided eye contact with her as I did most everyone else, half expecting her to point a long bony forefinger in my direction like something out of a Stephen King novel, outing me as a writer and causing my fact to melt.
***

At the weighing tables, I caught sight of the fighters. These “chickens” are not the banal type embroidered on aprons or playfully painted on a pack of thighs at Sac-N-Save. More than anything they are war birds, bred with decades-old stud books for strength and streamlined for combat. To the uninitiated, the cocks all look the same until they start dying differently. But to the handlers there were differentiations in breed, height, weight and ability that determined the matches for the day, thousands of dollars riding on each bird.

As things got going, there was a definite code of accepted conduct to the rowdiness, and one would have to be diagnosed with something out of the DSM-IV-TR (ie: crazy) to pick a fight. Though loud, the betting was far from crazy. It seemed that everyone there was picking up on the nuances of chicken, handler and referee that intuited how to direct funds, not unlike a low-end stock exchange. The yells of “jes! jes!” interlaced with harsh Ilocano accents raised the level of claustrophobia significantly.

More than racial signifiers, there was a certain hardness to the crowd: working class, middle-aged local men, with the occasional facially tattooed drug dealer mixed in for third world effect. After feigning an interest in sharing a smoke with someone a few chairs down, Benson later told me that the fellow I was chatting with was the owner, and that “he knows your face now, so you’re good to sit there.” Oh great. Off to the left, an excited better told me, “My P.O. told me this is healthier than drugs. I didn’t go to a fight for three years and I didn’t know what to do with myself. Brah, stay so excited!” As he spoke, I could not help but notice that he was thumbing more hundred-dollar bills in his hand than he had teeth in his mouth.

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For those of us with a modern life unaccustomed to the casual nearness of death and violence, the pit appears to be a brutal environment. For some handlers though, working chicken looked as easy as operating a remote control. An elegant, white-haired Filipino man in black wranglers, a spotless sweater, and blood-spattered tan cowboy boots looked like everything a chicken cutman would be. As he entered the pit with the underdog cock, he looked much more composed than the young braddah in slippers nervously cradling his big red. As the elegant man’s fighter began spitting up blood, he held it upside down just long enough to suck blood out of its beak and encourage it to bite its opponent. He spat the purple clot onto the dirt, searing an image onto my mental retina that I’m sure to recall anytime I fear dinner is not cooked through enough. Although doomed, his cock won the fight with his veteran skills.

After a few quick rounds, the elegant Filipino man re-entered the pit, and I almost got into the spirit of losing money. That was until Benson informed me of the quick hand signaling required to enter the fray. He explained: “A finger up means ‘jes,’ which today is $100. A finger down means $1,000. Two fingers down: $2,000 … so umm, maybe best if you just don’t use your fingers.” With that in mind, I kept my digits neatly folded on my lap while the dust flew and the toothless ex-con to the left of me made it rain Benjamins after winning an upset against a 300-pound heavy across the pit. “We all going eat good tonight!” he exclaimed, with me nodding in silent approval, careful not to give a thumbs up for fear of owing someone the rent under enforcement of the syndicate.

By the fourth fight, I had grown tired of the bloodshed. So too had the blonde cock being handled to attack his already critically wounded opponent. Despite some clever flicks to attempt a reaction, he stopped biting back and began to peck the ground, looking like he wanted nothing more than to go back to being a humble, big-boned chicken from Waimānalo. The Waimānalo blonde, like all the other chickens, had no idea this was a fight to the death. Although cocks have a natural bony spur at the back of their feet, there is no Darwinian advantage in killing an opponent of the same species in a matter of minutes. Chickens are existential creatures, somehow forgetting an experience right after it happened. Although they fight, cocks without knives attached to their legs quickly determine a pecking order and continue on their dumb way, forgetting the whole affair and going back to scratching for scraps.

There are such things as stupid questions, and the stupidest one a cockfighter hears usually has to do with what happens to dead birds. Benson told me on the way home, “Everything that goes down in human fights goes down in chicken fights. So you’ve got some guys who try to cheat, there could be poison on the blade or in the bird – definitely something you don’t wanna eat.” As we parted ways, Benson mentioned another fight next weekend and asked if I wanted to go. “No thanks,” I replied, digging my fingers into my pockets to signify no bet.