Wednesday’s Child: The Joy of Losing
I hadn’t planned on pursuing this line of argument in the present series of posts, I really hadn’t. I thought it far too obvious a direction, as so many of us have known punters who seemed happy in defeat and even elated at the prospect of it, as though reveling in the certainty of martyrdom. But then last week I ran across a newspaper story that added Oriental spice to the argument, and the piquancy of it changed my mind. “Sometimes the foil,” I said to myself, “shines more brightly than the gem it was meant to set off.”
A Malaysian gambler is suing Aspinalls, the London gaming club where I was the first Russian to become a member in the early 1990’s, for the 4 million he had lost there in a card game that lasted 72 hours, on the grounds that the club “didn’t force him to stop and rest” as “it had a legal duty to interrupt his losing streak.” Back in the days when John Aspinall was alive, and a chauffeur would use his commodious Rolls Royce to deliver homemade desserts to the club’s restaurant for these to accompany the sommelier’s Sauternes, the place in Curzon Street had the occult, rococo-mirrored and velvet-curtained aura of a gambling den of the bygone era, despite the Betting and Gaming Act having made this den legitimate ever since it first opened as the Clermont Club in Berkeley Square. When, in 2000, brave Aspers died of cancer, after some years of incremental decline the club was sold to some vile Australian chain and became a casino like any other.
Not surprisingly, for British journalists covering the absurd lawsuit it was the club’s ancient mystique, as well as the fact that it was at chemin de fer that the Malaysian had lost his millions, which sent them scurrying to the first Bond novel, Casino Royale, where “Bond creator Fleming famously devoted 25 pages to a detailed description of 007 playing a game of double-chance baccarat.” Of course Bond played nothing of the kind in the book, any more than he played the Texas Hold’em he was made to play in the eponymous 2006 film, but this is what British journalists know of playing cards nowadays.
“Bond’s experience told him,” writes Fleming, “that few of the Asiatic races were courageous gamblers, even the much-vaunted Chinese being inclined to lose heart if the going was bad.” Fleming seeks to portray his hero as the opposite of that, as intrepid, unswerving, in short, a true gambler, yet the fact – which I know so well from a life long left behind – is that the true gambler plays to lose, not to win like Bond. All Bond wants in the casino is the money, and in this sense he is no more courageous than the Malaysian now suing the casino.
A real gambler only wants the money in order to keep playing, because he can scarcely conceive of any meaning or use for it other than as a means to stay in the game. He does not want it to please his wife or mistress, to pay the heating bill, to help the socially disadvantaged, or to unseat the villain Le Chiffre at the behest of Her Majesty. He knows that the longer he stays in the game, trembling fingers on the dwindling stack of chips upon the green baize, the more he as a unique sentient individual becomes a pathetic casino statistic, and that his defeat is therefore as assured as the dawning of day. Yet this incontrovertible truth is powerless to make the fool walk away from the table. He is the epitome of a hero, this fool, because for him the sea is knee-deep and there are no odds to consider.
My previous two posts that began this series had, or at least were meant to have, a geostrategic subtext. It is quite possible that the present parable of the gambler as hero has one as well, but I’m rather stumped to say what that might be. Perhaps one will emerge, like the grainy image on a developing negative, in the red light of general opprobrium.