Sunday Comics: Die


As six heads of state try and dominate chance in a darkened room, our Sunday Comics columnist takes us on a journey through the gambling culture of New Orleans, introducing us to the characters who ultimately have a lesson or two for our leaders

Jim Gabour
14 July 2013

The cavernous room is dark and dry, and echoes of shuffling feet. Intermingling flocks of unidentifiable figures transform and twist the surrounding shadows into amorphous threatening shapes.  A singular shaded lamp infringes on the darkness, hanging head-high over a wide round table, creating a living circle of light in limbo.  Directly beneath, a swirl of smoke fills the incandescent bulb’s warm conical beam.  And below that translucent medium, a circle of matte green felt is filled with activity.  Hands and round-edged rectangular pieces of cardboard flit back and forth.  The physical and emotional density of atmosphere at times distorts the features of the six players seated about the table’s circumference.

In spite of that disguising veil, all six are wearing their best “poker faces”. President Barrack Obama, General Secretary Xi Jinping, Chancellor Angela Merkel, President François Hollande, and Prime Minister David Cameron, are sorting through their cards in a tense round of “Texas Hold ‘Em”, with Russian President Vladimir Putin dealing, and finally calling, the table.  Each of the other players carefully study their cards yet again in mock consideration and in quick turn fold, conceding the hand to Putin, who then happily shows the other defeated players that he has won the pot with only a pair of sixes in his hand.  As clears the table of a mound of Euro-valued chips, however, he announces loudly, “But I won’t be bluffing next time.  You can believe that.” And then he removes his shirt.

The dealer’s choice of game passes to Putin’s left, to Merkel, whose own blouse is tightly fastened to the level of her chin.  “We play ‘Doctor Pepper’, meine lieben Herren,” she calls out happily, to a resounding chorus of groans from the other players.  

“Femelles fichues,” complains Hollande, knowing that they would now basically be playing the manly game of five card stud, but this time the wild joker would be accompanied, in female fashion, by a parade of tens, twos, fours and one-eyed jacks.  

“Too many wild cards,” says Obama, “I should have suspected.  Too many free passes has always been a German mainstay in the game.  Especially since they put a woman in charge.”  

The gentlemen’s criticisms are proven at least plausible when moments later the German Chancellor slams the table with five kings to take the pot handily, while holding only one actual face king.  

The choice of game rotates again, this time to Xi, who signals his translator, who communicates to those assembled, that the First Secretary wants to scrap cards as the gaming device and gamble in a manner more traditional among certain elements of  his own people, using dice.  The other five are forced to follow his lead, getting up from their comfortable seats at the card table and dropping to their knees with the Chinese politician to play craps.  

The historian in President Hollande objects, as the dice game was first known among nineteenth-century Americans as “crapaud”, as in “toad” or “frog” -- their derogatory name for the French.

Indeed, Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, born in 1785 New Orleans, brought crapaud into the City, where it was anglicized into “craps”. For his efforts he died bankrupt from gambling, but was somehow buried in the legendary – and pricey -- St. Louis Cemetery #1, less than a mile from the street that bears his name, and my own house at 725 Marigny street.

Xi wanted to both be a game-changer and to denigrate at least one of his non-Chinese competitors in the process.  He has succeeded at both.  “These western games are much more fortuitous than mahjohngg,” he declares, smirking at Hollande.

* * *

Me, I understand the need to dominate through manipulating chance, but understanding doesn’t make it work for me as a method of manipulating other people.  My own immediate family mostly thought of gambling as entertainment, and considered success at the games as a physical sign they were doing right with the world.  I had brief encounters with the culture throughout my early life.

Prior to his marriage, my father, uncle and wonderful grande tante Martha often traveled vast distances together in Dad’s yellow convertible, with both esoteric destinations and activities in mind.  They drove from eastern Texas all the way to the Pacific, exploring the Grand Canyon, Death Valley and the depths of Hollywood along the way, and partied at the wide ocean’s edge on the Santa Monica pier, the trip’s terminus.  However, their favorite and most frequent journey was a short one into New Orleans for gaming.  The trio preferred Fairgrounds horse racing, but they often found their way to the tables and wheels nearby.  On one occasion Dad won so big that he stuck around the city for a week to have a blue pinstripe “gambling suit” made to order.  He said that after that his luck increased ten-fold.  He met my mother.

Less than a year later, after his honeymoon night at the lavish Monteleone hotel on Royal street, he took his wife for a week’s sojourn at the even more elaborate casinos lining the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.  Unfortunately, the Gulf offered him and his suit a deep losing streak during their visit, and when passing back through New Orleans, the couple was forced by newly-limited finances to stay in cheaper, gender-specific dorm rooms at the YMCA, my father separated from his new bride.

I had brushes with gaming myself, though often secondarily.  In my first real weeks away from home at university, I can remember being taught to gamble by my freshman roommate Sal, a seventeen-year-old mob-connected jockey from LaPlace, just west of New Orleans.  Besides regular calls to his bookie, Sal played barroom pinball on glass-topped machines with grids of slots for the balls, and a game that in those days surreptitiously paid off.  You matched the patterns of the moving screens to be awarded points, brought the bartender over to witness your triumph – the points won were numerically indicated in a tiny window -- and clear the game.  He then paid you off at a nickel a point.  For those first months of my higher education, Sal’s finesse with the metal spheres furnished our off-campus meals and then some.  He was a generous winner.

But Sal also gambled with his grades, flunked out after that initial Fall semester, and drew a low number in the draft lottery.  He was immediately conscripted into the Marines for basic training and then sent to advanced warfare schooling.  Sal somehow survived the weeks of training and discipline, and after ten weeks was deployed to Viet Nam.  Within only one more week his cousin called to say Sal’s body was being shipped home in a box.

In Orleans parish (county) gambling was illegal, except for the ponies and covert operations like the pinballs.  The laws read likewise in neighboring Jefferson parish, but out there on the bayou, things were a lot looser.  At school I was always in the company of musicians, even though most of them at this point in time were horn players.  Trumpets and ‘bones,  saxes and clarinets, all made good money in that day.  And college kids played for lots less than union-scale older journeymen, so they all were able to work their way through school without scholarships.  By my sophomore  year, thanks to a saxophonist roommate, I was a regular at  the massive tents arrayed along Airline Highway, near the late Sal’s home in LaPlace, Louisiana.  And I didn’t even have to pay the cover charge, as I was “with the band”.  A roadie to a horn band.  I was in heaven.

The tents, guarded by Deputy Sheriffs, were completely illegal.  And completely under the elected Sheriff’s protection.  You paid a cover charge to gain entrance at any age, the rule being that if you were tall enough to get your money over the bar, you were old enough to drink.  There were always great bands playing, and my bud backed up some of the true legends of the New Orleans R&B scene.  He also played in the five-piece bump-and-grind burlesque bars on Bourbon street, but that is way another story.  In the tents there was a free buffet, and you could gamble if you want.  I mostly ate and drank and listened to the music.  The tables never seemed to call me, and I felt no worse for the fact.

There actually was an earlier precedent in my own life, even before I came under Sal’s sway.  I had walked into the century-old Tujague’s on New Orleans’ Decatur street the day after my high school graduation, part of a week’s residency in the fancy Saint Charles Hotel, a  graduation present from my proud parents.  At that point the Tuj was a gaming paradise.  If you were a regular – and after two days I was, seventeen or no – when you ordered a drink you were offered The Cup.  Inside that leather cylinder there were five dice, or die.  If you accepted The Cup, you shook the die and rolled out a spread, which was then counted like a hand of five-card stud.  Two threes and three ones, a full house aces high.  Then the bartender rolled against you. If your cup “hand” was higher than his, you paid nothing for the drink.  If the bartender won, you paid double.  I never ever took The Cup either.  And consequently could not afford to become a drunk.

It was a great time to be alive.  And then one group of Federal cops started enforcing gambling laws, another set of health officials decided that the bookies could no longer bring their dogs into the bar, and yet another decided that if the tents along the Airline didn’t at least start paying taxes on their income, the state would get no more money for roads.  All the fun stuff shut down.

But eventually legal casinos opened, legal lotteries were engaged and publicized, and some of the bookies adapted to this new way of life.  I would like to re-introduce one of them, a gentleman now passed into the great VIP room up above, as an individual who might bring larger lessons to our continually-gambling heads of state.

* * *

“You know, Jim-Jim, this non-violence shit really pays.”

This from the mouth of the infamous “Mad Dog” Salvatano, semi-retired bookie and gambler extraordinaire.

The setting:  Happy Hour at Tujague’s Bar on Decatur street, New Orleans,  a winter Monday.  

I made note of the occasion immediately afterwards, scribbling awkwardly with a black Sharpie® onto a white cocktail napkin.  I wanted to remember to do intensive research later and see if some heavy-metal planet oozing radiation had slipped from orbit, reasoning that there must be some cause for what I had just heard.  Contradiction on such a cosmic scale does often not occur without a substantial prompt.

And The Dog was not known as a master of self-restraint in any portion of his life.  Thus, his name.  This man was embracing non-violence?

He had more to say.

“Yeah, me and my lady we was watching “Gandhi” last night...”

I felt another slip in the universe.

“...and there he was in prison...”

This I knew he could relate to.

“... wearing a uniform with the numbers 189 on the pocket.”


“So I got up right then and there and drove to the Cracker Barrel Mini-mart and put a buck on the Lotto Quick Pick 3, betting the numbers 1, 8 & 9...”

Oh, no.

“I tell the cashier where I got my numbers, and she’s cute so I buy us each a beer and we have a little talk about this philosophy stuff.  We drink a second beer.  Then I figured I’d go finish the movie and pick me up some more of the scoop, but by the time I get home, this Gandhi guy is dead, and Linda smells somebody else’s perfume on me, plus the beer, and she asks me where I been.   I got no ready answer except “at the store”, and right then and there I figure out that she ain’t any too hot about giving me a recap of the plot. She ain’t too hot about passing any other more bodily-oriented stuff with me neither.   I figure it can wait.

“So I get up alone this morning, look at the paper, and bingo, there it is:  the Quick Pick 3 winning numbers are 189.  Natch.  I won me five hundred bucks because some dead Indian dude went to jail in South Africa a hundred years ago.  And because somebody invented the DVD.  I’m gonna watch that movie all the way through tonight.  Maybe he sent me some more messages, hunh?”

I added that to my notes.

Looking at the wadded, marker-stained cocktail napkin now, I have decided to add the flimsy piece of paper to my mojo altar.  It’s best to pay attention when these things happen, and I am.

Gandhi probably did, too.

* * *

In my own imagined gambling scenario, First Secretary Xi “craps” out.  

The Mad Dog could have told him why it happened.

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