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Con Houlihan: Playing your cards right in Castle Island

TS Eliot liked to coin one-liners such as "Culture is what people do after their day's work". That sounds true, but different races and different kinds of people have their own ways of relaxing.

If you ever went into a house in the mountain country between Castle Island and Listowel, you might wonder where the table was. It was either hidden in a corner or removed to a different room. The reason was simple: the mountain people loved dancing and the table was put away to make space.

The mountain people of the Deep South in America had their culture, too: after the day's work they loved to sit around and sing and play the guitar. Where I attempted to grow up, what culture had we? Before the coming of the machine to farming, people were often so tired in the evening that they just sat around and conversed and listened to the wireless. Then there were the months called the "idle times", more or less from late October until late February.

Part of the culture then was card-playing: in some houses this could go on from after supper until well after midnight. The common game was thirty-one or forty-five. Basically, they are the same game, except that in thirty-one the big trump is 11 whereas in forty-five it is 10.


The group of us who helped one another to waste our youth loved card-playing but not thirty-one or forty-five. Poker was our game. We might play occasionally with the adults, but when we were on our own, we almost always played poker. And, of course, we felt we had been born too late: we could see ourselves playing for high stakes in mining camps or on river boats while beautiful ladies looked on. It was a romantic dream but it had been part of life in the Old West and on the Mississippi. All we could do was sit in some quiet corner and gamble that we were cleverer than one another and maybe win a shilling in the course of a night.

We had another outlet for our gambling instinct. It is an outlet known the world all over. I'm talking, of course, about the roulette table, the most addictive form of gambling known to civilised man, or to even partly civilised man. It would be hard to estimate how much a part the wheel plays in our life. Early man carved wheels to worship the sun and probably that was the origin of the real wheel -- the early wheels were only circles. The circle will haunt you wherever you go or whatever you do: we see it in the sky most days and some nights. If you drop a stone into a pond, it goes on making circles. If you tie a goat to a post in the middle of a field, he will make a perfect circle. The roulette table contains a perfect circle and the ball used in that game is like a circle in three dimensions.

How did my generation come to know roulette? Show people came around to our town for about a fortnight every year to coincide with the local races. They brought chair-o-planes and swinging boats and the merry-go-round and other attractions. For my little group the biggest attraction was the tent that housed the roulette. We thought of ourselves as addicted gamblers and in a sense we were, even if pitch and toss was our most common form of seeking fortune.

It is very easy to understand why the roulette table is the biggest attraction in such places as Monte Carlo and Biarritz and Las Vegas, because it is like life itself -- it calls for a fair amount of intelligence and a big degree of luck.

We have all heard the song about the man who broke the bank in Monte Carlo. He was a real man. His name was Charles Wells. He broke the bank not only once but thrice and, of course, he died a pauper. There was never a song about the bank that broke the man at Monte Carlo. There was intense speculation about the method he used. Late in life he confessed that he had no method -- he relied on the gambler's best ally, Lady Luck.

My little group had several plans to break the bank in Castle Island or Tralee or wherever. Some of the plans seemed foolproof until you tried them. For instance, if you doubled up and kept doubling up you were sure to win, or so you thought. The truth is that you are certain to lose. There was another plan. If you waited until the black or the red hadn't shown up for five or six times or more, you started backing one of them then, but that didn't work either.


We had another plan: some night after the show closed down, we would steal into the tent and mark in some extra blacks and reds and thus lessen the odds against us but we never did it.

We hadn't the courage and we excused ourselves by saying that the paint mightn't be dry in time.

At that time I had a neighbour, a little 12-year- old girl with the face of an angel, who had her own scheme. She had a knitting needle so long that it had probably been spliced and now and then, but not too often, she used to shift her coin on the table. By being very clever and not overdoing things she might win maybe a shilling in the course of a night. She was hardly a criminal.

Cahirmee Fair is the old name given to the annual horse fair in the town of Buttevent in North Cork. I have a special memory of it because it was at that gathering I had one of my very few days of success at the roulette table. Without a system.

I was just going on chance and won about 10 pounds in the course of a few hours. My driver, a friend girl as apart from a girlfriend, wished to go see the bright lights of Castle Island and so I told the two boys who were running the wheel that I had to break off.

They were two tall fair-haired brothers from Carlow and one of them said: "Don't worry Con. We'll meet again at Tralee Races." And we did . . .

Fogra: Congratulations go to Feidhlim Kelly on his victory in the 3,000 metres Memorial Race at Dublin Airport recently