2 years ago
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?
Posted by Canary Islander at 4:15 PM