It was dusk, warm light softened the edges of the casino’s floor and the green velvet of its gambling tables. The work of the day now pivoted towards the deserved luxury of bright notes struck by ice in glasses, the rattle of dice in the bettors’ hands provided a drum roll urging the evening on towards inevitable glamour. There would be stories – or so the assembled gamblers had been promised by a slick advertising campaign for the casino. But it was not dusk, the evening had already heeded the call of the dice, and the soft light cast a spell over the darkness which the punter would have recognised as belonging, in fact, to 3am.
I’d come to the casino to indulge in the decadence for which Sydney is famous. The desire to see the table where Utzon had played for his life savings was just one attraction – your correspondent being not immune to the lure of a flutter himself. But since I am always on the lookout for the most momentous of places, scenes and deeds to recount to you potential travellers, I was not content to muck around in petty adjustments of money on the regular floor. I had come to play in the high-roller room. Gaining access had proved easier than I thought. One gains a certain confidence meeting many different people as I do every day. They don’t sit at a poker table, but the businessperson, the smoker, the foolhardy youth – they are all gambling in one fashion or another, misguided through life by some sort of sense of their own epic grandeur. They are convinced that destiny will return their call – if not this hand, then the next. I’d learned a lot from them. So I conned my way in to the high-roller room with a voice that sounded like money and an eye to winning enough of somebody else’s before anybody noticed it was hollow.
My fellow poker players were what you’d expect. Mostly men, either because they’d inherited the family business and were taught enough sense not to ruin it by their middle age, or because the perky waitresses serving free drinks were more to their taste. They were generally formally dressed in expensive suits, but occasionally punctuated by an incongruous item of casual clothing like a sweater, most typically worn by the odd American in an otherwise Australian and Asian dominated crowd.
The first few hands went rather well. There’s no point counting the cards in here; they use ten or more decks, so the comforting fantasy that knowing precisely what came before will predict the future was dispelled. And at a certain point I realised we weren’t betting money at all. We weren’t even betting what we would have to do to recoup a loss. We were betting our identity. I pushed coloured chips towards the centre of the table, and occasionally brought more colours back, but risked nothing, secure in the knowledge that I would always be myself because I couldn’t be otherwise. The players who I assumed were the richest at the table displayed a similar sense of abandon – to the extent that they had invested money with their personality, they were not risking enough of it to actually lose themselves on the table. The only people concerned by the outcome were those betting enough to impoverish or enrich themselves, the height of the stacks of chips in front of them waxed and waned as the game went on, their expressionless faces masking transformations of their sense of themselves as legend or failure. As the highest rollers and I dared each other to feel something, it was this group that I steadily made money off in the first passage of the game.
There’s a type of logic to the way I play. It’s a sort of systematic inversion and misrepresentation of the mental processes that players usually make. Surprise when my hand wins even though it is clearly superior, joy when I lose. Of course I am subdued in my reaction to everything, but the players read my face, following the perverse narrative I have constructed with tiny facial twitches or the dilation of my pupils. The professionals study me more and more closely, and come to ever increasingly absurd conclusions about my play – that my eyes glaze over the cards and I fold or double my bet without registering so much as the suit or number. They distrust these hypotheses they form about me, I have unsettled them. They second-guess themselves, and play differently than they would have. And for the first passage I win because I am replicating beginner’s luck by the sheer force of incomprehensibility that I bring to every hand. But as the game wears on, they realise my trick and regain composure. My odds are suddenly no better than random, and I take the inevitable losses which render me mortal in their eyes. I have almost lost the sizable stake that I won, the buffer that entitled me to sit with them, and it’s almost time to leave.
But before I did, another player somewhat down on his luck piped up with an unlikely proposition. “Of course I have easy access to more funds in my penthouse, but I wonder if you fellas wouldn’t prefer to make this game a little more interesting?” he challenged in droll American tones.
"What could be more interesting?” asked another in flat tones, visibly bored.
"Money’s all the same, you see, even if it is coloured like Monopoly money down here. No, I want to play for rarities.”
"Such as?” Asked a very formally dressed Asian gentleman.
"I assume that men of means such as yourselves are of a similar political inclination. What say we play for something that tugs a little more at the heart strings than the purse strings? I have with me here the original ... cane of Winston Churchill,” he declared, brandishing an aged but very fine wooden stick. There was a titter of excitement at the extraordinary suggestion, each man clearly fancied the image of himself fighting them on the beaches or in the sky and – as our American friend suggested – that was certainly something money couldn’t buy. It was on.
"I see your Winston Churchill cane and raise you this scabbard, owned by Napoleon Bonaparte himself!” piped up another. Nobody questioned why the two men had these items on their person at all times. Perhaps this man had been rubbing it for luck under the table, hoping he would not meet his Waterloo.
The other players were very interested now. The ones that didn’t have a lock of Hayek’s moustache hair or a handkerchief belonging to Hitler tucked up their sleeve somewhere immediately sent for rare items of their own. The waitresses, who were usually instructed at this part of the evening to dress in tasteful bunny costumes, were instead dispatched to the luxurious suites of the Casino’s hotel to retrieve a panoply of knick-knacks and trinkets. A few players politely withdrew, removing their chips from the table because they could not compete with such raised stakes. I stepped forward. “Boasting, gentlemen, is not in my nature. Which is why I am fortunate to be able to present an item that needs no such elaborate introduction. I think you’ll find this will more than suffice,” I said, as I threw down an ordinary drink coaster with a squiggled incomprehensible signature on it. In fact, the ink had just dried on it because I’d reached for a pen and drawn it under the table myself while the others were marvelling at Napoleon’s scabbard.
"And whose is that supposed to be?” challenged one.
"Well sir, how unfortunate you know so little that you cannot recognise its owner. An item of such unimaginable value is nothing to you. Perhaps we needn’t worry – after all, to such a person you also would be as nothing, but in their case the feeling would be justified,” I said harshly. It had the intended effect; I surveyed the faces of the gamblers whose resolute and unwavering expressions were determined not to show their hands.
"That’s on a casino coaster same as we all have right here. How do we know you didn’t just squiggle it under the table?”
"Of course it’s on a casino coaster, you fool! Although I have achieved an elevated position in life, how else would I gain access to a personage whose company is so precious and sought after, if not at the tables here?” I locked eyes with my interrogator. Again, a blank expression, unflinching in silence for a pregnant pause.
"Alright, we play for the autograph.”
We were all in with our assorted booty now. Each player held his own two cards, an internal life for only him to see. In my case I had the makings of a straight flush, an 8 and 9 of clubs. The communal cards were dealt – writing a story of current affairs, politics, and conflict, the same events occurring to the polity of the table, but experienced differently by each person. One man did meet his Waterloo, another saw off the battle of Britain, the Hayek-fancier looked set for a round of particularly brutal austerity, another fuehrer met with initial success overreached much like operation Barbarossa. With one more card to be revealed, a pair of kings dominated the communal pool, but my straight flush was coming to fruition with a 7 and 10 of clubs. When the time came to reveal our hands, pocket kings for the gentleman on my right seemed the best hand before my straight flush, which arrived on the flop with the jack of clubs. The other players were shocked; just when they thought they had cracked the code of my play they were fooled one last time by an expression as inscrutable as the squiggle on the square of cardboard sitting on top of the pile. The booty of this old boys’ club was mine. Although I savoured the victory, punctuated by the momentous sense of loss of the other players as they stared dejectedly at my hand, it was a very hollow feeling as I surveyed the pile of junk of supposedly immeasurable value that I had won.
"Winning won’t change me,” I said modestly. ``But it might change you. I can’t keep all this...”
"Give it back then!” interrupted one ungraciously.
"My thought exactly. But can we content ourselves all leaving the same man as we were? I will give it back – every piece of it – provided nobody leaves with their initial stake.” This was, at first blush, quite unsatisfactory to most. You could see their eyes, picking out their contribution to the kitty, insisting that it and it alone should be returned to them. But after a while they realised my generosity, that I needn’t have left them anything at all.
So we drew lots for the collected prized objects. The axis leader became the ally, one hopped the pond and a century of history, and another trimmed his moustache a bit. One found his new acquisition brought him as much happiness as his former possession, and decided this proved the pointlessness of collecting such oddities. Another felt the loss acutely and continued to collect, instead renouncing gambling from that day forth. My interrogator was furious that he had allowed himself to be tricked into accepting the coaster as a stake, and made a vow against pride. For once the glossy ad was right – there had been a story, the story of how each had lost himself to the night but lived to walk away from the experience a changed man.