Wednesday, January 23, 2013


The upper sixth formers at my school were expected to enrol into the SES.

Alas, the acronym SES (not SAS) stood for School Essay Society. Those of us who were studying science subjects like maths, physics, or chemistry felt somewhat aggrieved by this requirement to enrol. It seemed like a punishment designed by artists and theocrats who believed that a study of their stuff was perhaps more important than ours.

My assigned project for the SES was to prepare an essay and a supporting speech on Russian Literature.

So in addition to my science reading material, I had to plough through novels by Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Lermontov and Dostoevsky (Nabokov was just too new –abhorred by the theocrats, and therefore not on the official reading list).

But the novel that totally immersed me was Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. It is the only book that I have read from cover to cover, and then again from cover to cover without interruption. Ever since, I have believed it to be the greatest novel ever.

And now, over fifty years later, after a search on the Internet, I know why I found that novel to be so absorbing. In an extract of a letter written to his brother in 1866 (see below), I learned that Dostoevsky had been addicted to gambling, and I was reminded I had also read his book titled The Gambler:

“And I believed in my system. I won 600 francs in fifteen minutes. This whetted my appetite. Suddenly I started to lose. I couldn't control myself and lost everything. So I left to get my very last money, and went back to play. I risked 35 Napoleons and lost them all. I had only 6 Napoleons left to pay the landlady and for the journey. In Geneva I pawned my watch.”

You see, I’d grown up with the ruffle of cards, the clink of chips, and the spin of a roulette wheel. As a child I learnt every card game, and how to play chess, courtesy of a very kind and sympathetic bartender.

Those were the post war days in a Czech Club in London. Everyone was poor, and I remember the club couldn’t even afford a roulette wheel and baize. Instead, they had old playing cards stuck onto a large cardboard base, and the players would place their bets on those cards, after which they would await a shuffle and cut followed by the slow turn of a set number of cards from one of two dealer packs to see who (if anybody) had won. I remember the game was called “Gottesleben”, which even today makes no sense to me, because it translates from German (and not from Czech) to “The Life of God”.

The Czechs and other East Europeans who joined the club had no love of Germans (or Russians for that matter). My heroes were the Czechs and the Poles and the Hungarians who would tell me gripping tales of their war experiences.

I grew up in those communities, and that led me to work my way through school and university in continental restaurants, betting shops, and in a company that provided for the catering needs of the top London casinos. Yes, I washed dishes, waited tables, bounced bad customers, took bets, settled bets, collected from Covent Garden and Smithfield markets and delivered to casinos, restaurants and private customers. In my late teens and early twenties I was on first name terms with the catering managements at many London Casinos and private gaming clubs.

In later years, when I escorted my Mother for a birthday evening at a casino – something that was still a big pleasure for her – I never gambled a penny of the money I had earned. I just watched, even when my Mother had her very small flutter on the roulette. And on those occasions when she won, she’d pass me some of her winning chips to look after, to be cashed in on our way home. Like everyone, she loved to play with casino money, not with her money, and she was emphatic about “being grateful” for a big win. For her, “being grateful” entailed leaving her original small stake on a number that had won for her - to see if it would win again - and tipping the croupier when she left the table with a win.

As I said, these were rare evenings, because her husband – my second stepfather – had committed suicide because of his gambling debts. I was nineteen years old, and all for working full time. My Mother insisted I continue as a student, work part-time, and get a university degree. And she was right. Times were tough, but we survived and I graduated with a degree in Physics.

So what has all this to do with Dostoevsky?

Well, as I said earlier, I’d never gambled in a casino. But I’d watched, and was familiar with the intense focus of the gamblers on a turn of a card and the bounce of the ball along a spinning roulette wheel. I was fascinated by their compulsive, obsessive and superstitious behaviour. And I believe that Dostoevsky had the same insights into these facets of human behaviour as I had.

There were times when I imagined a starting stake of my own and played that through in my mind as the reality unfolded. Of course, I always lost my imaginary money. But on the last time I went to a casino with my Mother, I placed two imaginary bets on the same number for two successive spins of the wheel. And in reality, that was the winning number, twice in succession. I guess that sort of crazy luck may have been experienced by Dostoevsky, but in his case it was with real money, and he became addicted.

Well, I’ve just celebrated my 70th birthday by doing some island-hopping around the Canary Islands. I stayed in a well-known hotel in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. I learned that the hotel had provided a home for the city casino until two years ago, when it moved into more modern premises in the dockland area. Well, I hadn't visted a casino for twenty years, so I decided to pay this one a visit. And for the first time ever, and in rememberence of my mother, I decided to have a flutter on the roulette.

For my first bet, I put chips on 8, 18, and 28. The wheel spun, and the ball fell into the number 18 slot.

I was mindful of my Mother’s dictum to “be grateful”, so I left my winning stake on number 18, but with a difference. I quadrupled that original stake. And number 18 won again.

And I remembered my Mother’s second dictum about “being grateful”. I gave a sizable tip to the croupier before collecting my winning chips, cashing in, and walking out. My visit to the casino had lasted for precisely two spins of a roulette wheel
Bless you Mum. I very much doubt I’ll ever visit a casino to play again. If there ever was the slightest trace of a gambling addiction in me – well, I’ve certainly buried it in style, haven’t I?



32 comments: said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
dolores doolittle said...


dolores doolittle said...

Gripping tales, Canary, and what an exciting finish! (and it didn't even add up to 69)! (did it)?

Ya tui lyublyu - wrongly spelt no doubt but supposed to say 'I love you' Russianly - always handy. (If only I'd done the 2nd year).

I've never been gamblingly attracted, but my mum used to do The Pools every week. What a Very Long time it took for that man to read out the football results while we kids had to BE QUIET. She never won a penny, but dad took up the habit after she'd gawn. And didn't win either.

Had they but gone to the Casino, with a Cunning Dictum.

Happy 70th-plus-a-bit, CI, you've obviously had a terrific week!

Canary Islander said...

Thanks for the lovely comment Dolores !

I should have mentioned that the casino was paying 35 to 1 for a bet on a single number.

So on the first spin, my gain was 35 chips on number 18, less 2 chips on my losing bets on numbers 8 and 28.
Profit = 35-2=33 chips.

On the second spin, I added 3 chips to my original stake of 1 chip on number 18. So I had a bet of 4 chips on number 18, with a gain of 4x35=140 chips.

So my total gain was 33+140=173 chips.


And the number 173 is magical, because:

We see 7 minus 1 is equal to 6.
3 plus 7 minus 1 is equal to 9.

Yippee !!! And we are left with a 6 and a 9.

So you are right, Dolores -
The answer is always 69.


Canary Islander said...

Dolores !!!
Where has your happy smiley avatar gone ???

JW10 said...

Thanks for your story, CI, it’s always great to read of other people’s experiences. I like your tales of the golden days. And more recently it’s good to see you came up trumps in the casino. I don’t gamble at all not even on the football fixed odds like most of my mates do. I work too hard to fritter the cash away. Much rather fritter it away with some refreshing cool beers.

We both share a liking for Dostoyevsky. The two books you mention I have also read. One of the my favourite films of all-time is The Gambler (1974) starring James Caan, The movie is based (loosely) on Dostoyevsky’s book. The best James Caan performance ever. He’s a gambler who wants to lose. For him, there’s no fun in easy money.
Crime and Punishment is a great piece of work. I’ve only read it the once but plan in the next month or two (there’s always a backlog, isn’t there?) to have a re-read.

dolores doolittle said...

I don't know where it's gone, CI - Nothing was Normal when I tried to post the comment! (tho I see you and JW are perfectly displayed as usual). Jolly glad about the 69 - now that IS normal...

Expat said...

Lovely blog, CI! And congrats on your big win. We have a little flutter on the lottery each week, and I used to play the one-armed bandits back in the day when I was but a slip of a lass. But I'd be too scared to go to a casino. I might like it! And anyway, I'm uselsess at cards.

Goodness, how well-read you and JW are! I do have a very dog-eared copy of War and Peace that I inherited from somewhere and have never opened. Oh, and Anna Karenina, which I did open but didn't get too far into because I couldn't get the names sorted out and lost track of the characters. I confess, though, to being fond of Solzhenitsyn in my intense teenage years. And I did read Lolita all the way throug. Wasn't he a Russina? Nowadays, it's detective thrillers for me.

Expat said...

Uh oh. What did naughty Dolores say to have her comment removed by a blog administrator, I wonder?

Canary Islander said...

My imaginary mental style of gambling is really just the same as real gambling. It's just that I gradually lose my mind instead of my money...
Hope you enjoy your second read!

Hi Expat
When I first met Kathy, she won £200 on a one-armed bandit in one of our local clubs, and then £80 on another machine at Gatwick airport. Lucky lady - because apart from those two occasions, she didn't gamble at all!

Hi Dolores
Hope you find your lost avatar soon. I'll keep a lookout for it for you...

JW10 said...

I might push C&P up the queue a bit, CI. This book is a precursor to the TV show Columbo. Dostoyevsky was ahead of his time. And Imaginary gambling is good, I like it.

I need to tell you about my well-reading, Expat. The first twenty years of my life were spent reading Marvel comics and science fiction stories. It’s only as I reached my middle age that I have read the classics and such. Good as Nabokov and the rest are you can’t beat a bit of Hulk Smash! Flame On! By the hoary Hosts of Hoggoth! Bamf! Snikt!
Speaking of Marvel, we’ll have to hire Wolverine to sniff out Dolores’ missing avatar.

Canary Islander said...

Hi Expat - Dolores wasn't being naughty at all :-) - she was a damsel in distress and had asked me to help because the Blogger system wasn't working properly for her. And gallant white knight in shining armour that I am (and modest to boot) I was behooved (or is it behoven?) to ride to her rescue - which resulted in me deleting her comment. Someone had to do it, and it fell to me, and I was up for it. Quite magnificent, really (although I say so myself).

dolores doolittle said...

Yes Magnificent Bold Knight of the Canaries, am comforted that tho my avatar lurks in the furthest reaches of blogger-land, it's safe, and one day will pop back up just as inexplicably as it departed.

I'd say you too, Expat, have done some deep-reading as well as CI & JW. Am frenziedly Brain-Racking to come up with Anything vaguely up there (or deep down there). Am failing...

Does Stephen King count?

Expat said...

I would personally say so, D. Particularly if we're talking about The Stand. Riveting book, and a classic in its genre. And Carrie, like Kingsley's The Water Babies and Dickens' Oliver Twist, highlights the need for social changes in attitude. So King is definitely up there with the modern greats. Not so sure about that one featuring the clown in the drainage system and mammoth labyrinthian spiders, though...

dolores doolittle said...

Yes Expat, I enjoyed The Stand - I love stories about our savageness when we've gone & brought on the end of the world again. (Humans, eh...)

I went to see The Water Babies with a friend at her urging when I was 20ish. I remember greatly looking forward to The End. 'Social changes'? Well that went Right over my head!
There is no hope...

Canary Islander said...

This is all going over my head!
What are you ladies smoking/talking about???

dolores doolittle said...

Well CI, things haven't been the same since I started chewing on the 8ft triffidy-thing growing heartily behind our dustbin

Canary Islander said...

The triffidy-think sounds yummy, Dolores, but anything that grows naturally doesn't have any preservatives, and at my age it's the latter I need more than the former.

JW10 said...

I'm smoking too because I've read about a dozen Stephen King books. The Stand is his magnum opus in my book (heh, heh). You've just gotta love The Trashcan Man.

JW10 said...

Cola is the best preservative, CI. :-)

dolores doolittle said...

well, just WHAT are you gentlemen talking about?!

dolores doolittle said...

'smoking/talking'. Can't even copy properly...

Canary Islander said...

I use Cola !
An excellent preservative for JD !

Expat said...

JD in and of itself is a preservative, CI. It pickles you from the inside out!

But cola? Drop a copper coin in it and disappears!

dolores doolittle said...

Ah CI, JD - a fond favourite of my brother's.

Yes, Expat - how do people's innards survive? Such a puzzle...

Hours of pleasure can be had by dropping a minto into bottles of cola & standing well back - fabulous fountains!

Canary Islander said...

Wow, so copper thieves can avoid arrest by dropping their loot into a vat of cola! And they can add a minto to distract the forces of law and order. I wonder if it is possible to separate out the absorbed copper afterwards. Then the whole thing would be foolproof...

JW10 said...

I have unheeded all the warnings about cola. I drink gallons of the stuff. My stomach must be made of adamantium.

Expat, off blog but on sport, good luck to the Baltimore Ravens this weekend at the superbowl. The Ravens are my team of choice in the NFL and I'll be cheering them on.

Expat said...

There is an arch rivalry between the Washington Redskins, the 'local' team and the one of choice for most people in my neck of the woods, and the Ravens. The only team Redskins fans like giving a thrashing to better than the Ravens is the Dallas Cowboys. But since the 'Skins are out, along with my personal favorites the Pitsburgh Steelers, then supporting the closest-to-home team is what we shall do. I think they're the better team, but anything can happen on the day.

Best parts of the superbowl are hoping someone in the half-time show has a revealing wardrobe malfunction and the commercials. Can't wait to see what the Budweiser horses are up to this year!

Dolores Doolittle said...

Pittsburgh Steelers - I've got the T-shirt! (It WAS George's, passionate about them since a long-ago visit to his uncle in their vicinity).

We once lived near an American air base near Oxford, and George was invited to watch a superbowl There - even unsporty me/I was thrilled!
Hope it's a belter this weekend, Expat!

JW, Be Careful in there with all that gutrot!

Ooh - the commenting thing looks like it used to...

JW10 said...

A couple of Steelers fans, eh? It’s only been this season that I’ve followed the American Football. After watching a few early season games I told myself to pick a team to support. I find it difficult to be neutral when watching sport and always pick a side to win. As a huge fan of The Wire I opted for the Baltimore Ravens. Lo and behold, they’ve only gone and made it to the final. Now I will be all ravened up on Sunday.
The match is free to air in the UK (BBC2, I think). The excitement is mounting. I’ve got the hot dogs ordered and the Budweiser’s are chilling in the fridge. I’ve been learning the words to The Star Spangled Banner to chant it out. And last but not least, Mrs W has promised to wear a cheerleader’s outfit. Come on, Baltimore.

Expat said...

Are you planning on staying up all night, JW? The game doesn't begin until 6:30 pm EST. That's 11:30 at night over there! And it goes on for hours.

If the Beeb is airing a recording, I'll make sure I don't spoil your fun by posting the results.

JW10 said...

Hi Expat, BBC2 is screening the whole game live so it will be an all-nighter for me. Luckily, I don't start work until 11.30AM Monday morning and my employment is nearby so I don't have to drive. (can enjoy myself with the Buds)

The four hour games of NFL are a piece of cake. I can watch five days of Test cricket without batting(sorry) an eyelid.
Come on Baltimore.