The world's oldest continuous foot race is the London to Brighton ultra. When I moved from "normal" marathons to ultras, I therefore always assumed I'd one day get to Brighton on foot from London by whatever route the race took that year (it changes for some reason). My career as an ultrarunner ended up being more successful than I could ever have imagined, but also briefer. Two years into it, a new obsession was taking control of my soul: one which involved late nights and long periods of sitting (not conducive to the ultrarunning life and training regimen).
It's perhaps fitting then that when I finally did arrive in Brighton, it was on a train quaffing coffee with a pudgy poker player rather than pouring isotonic drink down my throat with other ultrarunners. I was there for the Unibet UK poker tour leg. The aforementioned pudgy poker player Lappin was looking a little less pudgy than when I last saw him in London, a result of a disciplined regimen of exercise and diet.....wait, that's not it. He'd lost weight because he followed up a bout of food poisoning with the unusual step of licking ant poison he found on the window sill of his bathroom back in Malta. It's a measure of how well I know Lappin that when he told me this the night before, I was neither surprised nor incredulous. Lappin gonna Lappin.
After checking into the studio where we intended to start recording for our new podcast, and the hotel, we went for a wander on Brighton Pier. It felt like a trip back in time (a motif reenforced by this Unibet clip) to when I was a kid and school educational trips took the form of trips to place like Tramore or Bray where the kids in my class learned to operate slot machines while eating their body weight in candy floss and rock.
It's a testament to how well Lappin knows me that our relationship has moved through three stages of anecdotage:
(1) I told him all mine, until he'd heard them all several times
(2) his patience with the Doke rerun channel broke and every time I cleared my throat to ask "did I tell you about the time..." he shouted yes
(3) after a period of moody silences during which I sulked about having nobody to tell my stories to while he tried to develop an appetite to stomach my reruns (he never got there) he came up with the novel idea of telling my stories back to me, presumably in the belief that I might not remember them any more, or the view that anything was better than having to listen to me telling them again, followed by a short review: "that's not one of your better stories" or "you should put that one in your blog".
After I remarked it felt like a trip back in time, he seized on the opportunity to tell me the story of how I used to become the most unpopular kid in the whole school by the end of each trip. He followed it with a "one for the blog" comment so if the rest of this blog bores you, send your complaint to Malta.
School trips were a big deal when you grew up in a small town in Ireland and the only other excitement was wondering how many slaps of the leather strap the Christian brother would give you for displaying intellectual independence. Kids saved up their money for these trips, or tapped up their parents. I saved up my money too, but had a very different approach to spending it.
Ok, first let's talk about what every other kid who had been given spending money by their parents did. Knowing that once they got to Tramore or Bray every remaining penny would disappear into a slot machine, they'd spend some of the money on presents for their family, and themselves. The idea was to prevent themselves from blowing all their dough in the slots and returning home empty handed to angry parents and siblings. A solid plan theoretically, but I saw an exploitative strategy.
Eventually they all returned to the bus laden down with goods feeling morally superior to Scrooge O'Kearney, and the bus headed on to the slot machine arcade. When it got there, the kids would pile out with indecent haste to lose every last remaining penny. While they did so, I wandered about the arcade keeping all of my money in a prissy little purse, guarding it like the Crown Jewels. Wind forward an hour or two and by now most of my classmates had gone full slot machine addict, and burned through their entire roll. This was the point at which O'Kearney slithered into action. Sidling up to a classmate looking hungrily at a slot for which he no longer possessed the pennies needed to keep playing, negotiations would start. What can you sell me to get more money to play? How desperate are you? How little will you accept just to hear that sweet sweet whirring noise of the slot machine wheel one more time?
Sufficeth to say the terms I offered were never generous. That nice 5 pound watch you bought for your mother? I'll give you 20p for it. That chemistry set for your brother worth 8 quid? Mine now, for 20p.
I sat alone at the front on the long ride home, fully aware of the pure hatred being beamed at me from almost every other seat on the bus. I didn't care if nobody wanted to sit beside me. It meant there was more room for the bag of cheaply purchased goods I had recently acquired. I was the poorest kid on that bus, from the most indebted family, and my little brother and I may have been born to stressed out parents who didn't love or even like us, but for at least one day in our year, we were no longer losers, and we had more toys and trendy trinkets than all the rich kids.
I may not have learned the rules of Holdem for another 35 years or so, but looking back I realise now that the mind of Doke the poker player was born on a school bus.