It was a typical episode. Rules were bent for Forte. As the gambling began to eat into his salary—which exceeded $500,000 by the mid-1980s—he was given more work, jobs that other directors wanted but that went to Forte because, as one director puts it, "Chet was always the redhead's [Arledge's] pet."
Forte's gambling was no secret. His bookie came by the office to pay off and, more frequently, collect. He was known simply as "Chet's friend." Friends knew that Forte bet on games he broadcast.
"The thing was," one of the veteran cameramen in Forte's crew says, "Chet cared more about the show than he did about his money, so there were lots of times when he'd be in the truck rooting against his bet. There was one time, we were doing the World Series. Kansas City and St. Louis, 1985. Forte had the Cardinals in the fifth game, and if they win it, he wins the bet, but the Series is over. They lose and we go back to Kansas City for a sixth and maybe a seventh game. Good for the show, and the network makes a lot more money. So all through the game Chet is pulling for K.C., against his bet. In the ninth, as K.C. puts the game away, Chet is shouting, 'Guys, this is better than sex! We're going to Kansas City!' He's so excited, and he's just lost $5,000."
This way he had of laughing at the losses, of virtually boasting about how bad he had been hurt, might have been one reason why few people saw the signals. "All those years," Forte says, "I never had a winning season. Every now and then I'd win a big bet, and I'd take a couple of grand and give it to my wife and say, 'Here, honey, my team won. Buy yourself something.' " Even so, his wife once asked him if he wasn't gambling too much. Did he, perhaps, have a problem? Forte responded with the kind of rage that cameramen and technicians had learned to ignore. His wife did not bring up gambling again.
"He was not just a bad gambler," says Ohlmeyer, who was one of the people closest to Forte at ABC, "he was also a spectacularly unlucky gambler. I remember one time when Chet was betting exhibition baseball—that tells you how crazy it had gotten with him—and he had the Cubs over somebody in a game they were playing in Las Vegas. We're at the office and he's following the game over the wire. At the end of the first it's 6-0, Cubs, and Chet is up. Second inning, it's 12-1. Third inning, 17-2. Then Chet comes into my office, screaming, 'Can you believe this, have you ever heard of this——before? Game called on account of brilliant sunshine.' They'd had one of those desert days when everything goes white and nobody could see the ball. That's the kind of thing that happened to Chet."
It was a gambler's story. Horse drops dead 10 feet before the finish line...har, har, har. No gambler has ever seen through the humor of the story to the hard truth. But Forte's work never suffered, and although in the executive offices at ABC Sports there was concern about his gambling, it never went beyond private discussions. Forte was still the best director in all of television sports. That didn't change.
Television sports, however, did change. That was inevitable. And Forte's gambling got worse—more bets for more money. That, too, was inevitable.
In 1985 ABC broadcast its first Super Bowl. Forte directed, using his Monday Night Football crew, and boasted to the press that it was no big deal. He would do the game the same way he had been doing Monday-night games for 15 years.
He had the San Francisco 49ers heavy and, for once, won his bet. He lasted two more seasons at ABC.
When the network was acquired by Capital Cities in 1986, the days of extravagance ended, and ruthless cost-cutting began. Arledge, who had become president of both news and sports in the late '70s, was forced to choose between the two and went for news. Sports became the domain of Dennis Swanson, who in his first meeting with Forte said, "I've got a real problem with the money you're making." Nothing was said about Forte's nine Emmy awards.