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China Trade

Seven hundred and six years ago, Marco Polo returned to Italy , after spending several decades visiting China . He informed his astonished countrymen of the wonders of the Great Khan’s court (in which he claimed to have occupied a high post). He spoke of asbestos, coal, and paper money. He even introduced the country to spaghetti; a good thing as up to that time all they had to eat was Chef Boyardee macaroni. Six hundred and ninety-one years later, give or take a few months, Max Modesti left Italy for China . There was no Great Khan to visit, and he wasn’t much interested in asbestos or coal, but acquiring some of that paper money seemed like a good idea. Fifteen years after arrival in Hong Kong , he sat in the L.R.C. (Ladies’ Recreation Club), trying to add a few banknotes to his collection.

Max had just rolled, as Black, a 26 off the bar, hitting White. Figuring that White might be as dismayed as he – Max - was pleased, he reshipped. I was White. I was not dismayed –annoyed was more like it – and I did some figuring. I used my noodle, as they say. (I explained that idiom to my friend Sonia. Now, she has a disconcerting habit of staring at what passes for my hairline, shaking her head wonderingly, and remarking: “Such a big head; so full of noodles!”) I was only down four pips, and had a perfectly good holding game. Moreover, Max had twelve numbers that didn’t clear, and with my five point board, I had some gammon chances if I hit him right away. So I beavered. It turns out that my estimate of the expected value of the position was only slightly off. But magnify that slight error by 8, and I cost myself a theoretical tenth of a point. He did leave a shot (with 66), and I hit it, but he entered, scampered through the minefield, and won the race. The theoretical tenth of a point was ran away with seventy-nine others.

Hong Kong is a nexus of trade. People don’t walk along the streets, they bustle. Perhaps that is why it seems like every game is an 8-cube. Maybe it’s just that “8” is a lucky number in China . Here was another chance for me to turn the cube to 8.

Ordinarily I would redouble as Black, but I thought Max might still take if I hit one checker. I guess I was right, as I rolled 15, and he still took! He went on to win the game, so who am I to criticize his take?

There is a lot of wheeling and dealing in the chouettes here. Personally, I like taking extras. I’ve described extras in an earlier column. Here is an example.

Thomas Kong was in the Box as White, and doubled. Here in Hong Kong players have an aversion to taking gammonish cubes. There are three exceptions to this rule: 1) If they are stuck; 2) If they are Captain (and can thus win the Box); 3) If they are named either John, or Pearl . In this case Melody took because she was the Captain (Rule 2), and Robin, Patrice, and Max all “dropped and gave” as they say it, because neither Rule 1 nor Rule 3 applied. As a visitor, I exempt myself from these rules, though I have to carry my passport or they might be enforced. I took all three extras. (Actually, with only one checker back, and a 12-pip lead, it is quite an easy take.) Since they had each paid me a point, I won a total of 11 points from my four cubes (counting the primary cube given me by Thomas), which cleansed quite a bit of the salt out of the wounds inflicted by the losses of the earlier 8-cubes.

Besides “extras,” there are other deals to be made. There is the “drop/take.” This is where two people share the results of their cubes, dropping one and taking one, typically on a recube (as otherwise they might be forced to drop if everyone else did). Suppose that Max and Patrice (Patrice loves drop/takes) do a drop/take together. If they drop one cube on 2, and take one on 4, if they lose, they lose 3 points apiece, and if they win, they win 1 apiece. (Should they be gammoned, they would lose 5 instead of 8, which I guess is the primary appeal of this manoeuvre.) There is also the “Melody,” as in: “If you take with me, Melody,” (the supplicant is Captain, and needs one other person to take, or he’ll be forced to take all the extras) “I’ll take with you when you’re Captain.” As Melody’s takepoint is deeper than most, she doesn’t mind stockpiling of these promises.

This night Max had been wheeling and dealing quite a bit, with overall good result. It inspired him to new heights of entrepreneurial creativity. It began with his dropping a cube, or rather, five cubes. Ronnie had joined the game. Seven-handed, the game rules permitted the Box to take a partner. Thomas was Box, and Max was next in the batting order, so by default he became Thomas’ partner. The team doubled, and Max dropped, forcing Thomas to, if he wanted to keep the Box, take alone. He did, and Max discovered the downside of his drop: he was out of the action. Then a funny thing happened. Thomas’ game improved, and improved some more. Even worse than being out of a game was being out of a game that his partner might win. Max “offered” to come back in.

Thomas was Black, and on roll he is only a slight underdog, so letting Max back in would be reasonable IF he got to keep the 2.5 points Max had already lost by dropping, but that wasn’t Max’s offer. Whether Thomas simply forgot, or whether he was hearing the whistle of a distant wind, and sensed the typhoon moving in, he never said. He took Max back on as a partner, cancelling the points Max had lost by dropping. Max smiled. Thomas rolled 52, an irksome miss. Max grimaced. Robin, our Captain rolled 55. Max groaned. We gammoned them. Max’s “deal” cost him seven and a half points. Like Marco Polo before him, Max learned that in the China trade, you may see wondrous things, but you do not necessarily go back to Italy with all the gold.



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