A friend once told me about an experience he’d had in the army. During basic, he was getting a real hard time from a trio of a big alpha male and a couple of cronies. They were going to be the bosses of the barracks even if it meant the three of them beating the crap out of him enough times until he got the message. He took it for a while and then thought about it. He found a good makeshift club and waited until he found the leader alone.
He attacked him from behind and without any warning. He beat the hell out of him – nothing permanent but enough to put him down hard and keep him down. Over the next few days, he stalked and did exactly the same to the other two. When they got over their injuries, they never went near him again, nor anyone else.
By the end of basic, he’d already been talent spotted as officer material and went on to have a highly respected and honourable career in the military. The three thugs never made it through basic, because any volunteer army goes to some trouble to weed out people like that. It can’t afford such liabilities because despite what people might think and only when necessary, the professional military is in the business of delivering controlled and measured amounts of violence, not putting weapons into the hands of bullies who can’t be trusted not to get carried away hurting people.
I was staying with an old friend for a few days and as he knew I liked a game of cards, he invited me along to his weekly session of poker with some of his pals. It was much as you’d expect; mostly a bunch of family men enjoying a bloke’s evening together, a few laughs and jokes, a few drinks as we played for reasonably modest stakes.
Then I noticed something.
One of the players was using false shuffles and cuts, and more tellingly holding the deck by what’s called the “mechanic’s grip” when he was dealing. It’s only ever used by magicians or cardsharps and sure enough, his cards were coming off the bottom of the deck while we got the usual pot luck off the top.
He was cheating and he was good at it too, more because he knew how to keep a bunch of marks on the line rather than being a technically good card manipulator. He’d been steadily taking money off them for some time but never enough to really frighten them off; just ensuring he finished up on the money most evenings and allowing a big winner once in a while to keep them coming back. The game was a steady little earner for him. His winning hands were good but never suspiciously great.
His method of cheating was as old as the hills. He pilfered good cards from his discards until he’d surreptitiously assembled a good hand. When his turn to deal arrived, he palmed the good hand onto the bottom of the deck and then simply dealt it to himself from there.
I played badly through the evening, shuffled clumsily, lost money steadily, folded my hand a lot and cursed my run of bad luck. Of course I received some good-natured stick for my lack of skill from them all but seemed to only get irritated by his remarks.
The atmosphere between the two of us grew steadily worse as I drank a little too much and my niggling of him really started to get under his skin. Towards the end of the evening, I proposed playing for considerably higher stakes, which was enough to frighten everyone else around the table but us two into folding. He was just going to deal, and as I’d seen him adding his stacked hand to the bottom of the deck, I knew he’d arranged something good for himself.
He took the bait because I’d got to him and he was going to teach that mouthy bastard across the table a very expensive lesson. Losing self-control and playing cards for money is a bad combination. I kept raising away petulantly and he re-raised until it got a bit too rich for even his blood, so he called.
We both showed our hands. He’d a good one alright but not as good as the ace-high flush I was holding.
You see, I’d also been steadily pilfering cards one by one from my discards throughout the evening until I’d built up that killer flush. After that, it was just a matter of gradually irritating him until it was time to swap out the hand I’d been dealt in the big money round for the flush I’d assembled. He’d been cheating, but I’d out cheated him. He suddenly realised that and couldn’t say a damn word about it because I might tell the gang what he’d been up to, and the results of that wouldn’t be pretty – the blow off phase of a good con, but I was giving him a decent head start.
In 1929 Henry Stimson, serving as Secretary of State under President Hoover, closed the State Department’s code-breaking section with the memorable words – “Gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail.” That noble-sounding decision came back to haunt the USA on the morning of December 7 1941 when Japan crippled the US Pacific fleet at Pear Harbour without bothering with a formal declaration of war. After that, it suddenly became perfectly okay to read other gentlemen’s mail.
The next year at the battle of Midway, the US fleet under the leadership of Admiral Chester Nimitz sank four Japanese carriers and took substantial lumps out of nearly every other ship of the line in their fleet. What was supposed to be a Japanese ploy to draw out the US fleet and destroy it, became a devastating ambush of their own fleet.
Without taking anything away from the achievement of the brave fighting men involved, what was really behind such a stunning victory was that the main Japanese naval code JN-25 had been broken by American codebreakers. The whole Japanese battle plan was known in advance, and Nimitz used that knowledge ruthlessly to break the back of their naval power in the Pacific. He read their mail and eviscerated them.
They’re just stories but they’re not fiction, not theory, just real world things, rude data. You make of them what you will, and if they mess up all your beautiful ideas of how we should behave or how things should work, you better start working on a beautiful new theory. The world is as it is. The only thing that ever changes in it are individuals who decide they won’t accept that dismal idea.
My army friend, because the world is as it is, should have taken his beatings like a macho military man, even though it was three onto one. He couldn’t win that game, even one on one, so he changed it and he won. He took them out and they’d never come near him again, not only because they knew they’d have to kill him to stop him doing exactly the same thing again, but because by unleashing that natural leadership thing in him, they’d inadvertently recruited his first command in the barracks, who’d now follow behind him straight through the very portals of Hell itself, confident he’d lead them out the other side.
For him, it was never about the pain of taking a good hiding, it was always about a recognition and an absolute refusal to give up, to hand authority over to a bunch of street corner thugs. They wanted him to play their no win game of three onto one, so he changed the game.
I’ve never in my life played a dishonest hand of cards at an honest table because quite simply I love playing a game of cards well, but when someone is cheating, all the rules come off. The problem was never exposing him as a thief. Anytime I wanted to do that, it’d be as simple as grabbing his right wrist, twisting it upwards and showing the palmed cards he was about to add to the bottom of the deck. They were mostly construction men being cheated out of their hard earned wages and wouldn’t need me to draw any frigging diagrams. Blood would have flowed and that’s the sort of situation that so easily gets out of control.
At the same time, there was no way I was going to let him continue thieving from my friend. So yes, I cheated because I had to find a way out. Two Wongs can sometimes make a Wight, as an oriental friend of mine once slyly observed. Nobody ended the night in hospital, a holding cell or with a manslaughter charge hanging over their head. I do have a moral code, but it does incline to the roughty toughty side of the street. I gave the thief a day’s head start before telling my friend and asking him to redistribute the winnings with the other players.
Is it honourable to read someone else’s mail? Why not address that one to the war grave that the USS Arizona became or the other two thousand or so souls along what was called battleship boulevard. Somebody wants to play fast and loose with the rules, even the rules of war, then the gloves come off. You sowed it, you’re gonna reap it.
Does that mean there are no rules at all?
That’s not a question you should ask of me, but of yourself. I have my own Rules of Engagement and I do stick to them, just as long as everyone else is playing by the rules. If they decide to ignore them, then it becomes open season and they’re fair game. Even then, you have to decide for yourself which particular lines you won’t cross.
Kobayashi Maru was a fictional training exercise in the TV series Star Trek. It had been specifically designed in such a way as to be totally unwinnable; whoever took it was going to fail the test no matter what they did. The only person who did pass it was of course Captain Kirk, and he did so by the simple expedient of reprogramming the exercise to allow him to succeed.
The question is – was he cheating?
To my mind no, because once he realised he was in a rigged game, then changing the rules was a sensible and proportionate response. You either accept three against one, or you change the situation. You allow a cardsharp to get away with stealing money from people or you change the situation. You either fight a scrupulously clean war, whatever that is, against a brutal enemy who ignores what few rules there are, or you change the situation.
There is a school of thought that you don’t have to play in a rigged game, but in reality all that does is allow them to keep getting away with it. That’s not some type of honourable draw, it’s just handing them a win every time.
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