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Donna’s Men

by Michael E. Lloyd

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Book III: At Home With Robert

Chapter 4: Brain and Brawn

part 2 of 2

My own very ordinary life continued as normal into the seventies — busy days at work with Charlie, pubs with the lads in the evening, a bit of TV when I got home, the occasional new girlfriend, and biking holidays all over England. I never went abroad. No point, as far as I could see: that just seemed to mean cold, expensive beer, and incomprehensible languages to make things harder than they needed to be.

Peter spent a lot of his spare time at college applying his increasing feel for fine percentages, statistics and probability theory to the Newmarket Horse Races — the course was only a few miles from Cambridge — and many other forms of gambling. He played a lot of bridge and poker, still using his growing fund very gently and calculatedly.

In his early vacations at home he worked for cash to keep that fund building. But he was increasingly coming to hate working for anybody, and he was already convinced that once he’d established a real starting position, he should be able to sustain himself purely through gambling.

In his later vacations he travelled regularly to Newmarket, and worked part-time in a betting shop and spent many days watching and talking to the on-course bookmakers. And he read and re-read his precious Yardley book on the fine art of poker-playing until he knew every word of it by heart.

Meanwhile, Amy had tried some simple charity work to get her out of the empty house. But she had little energy or motivation for it, and she soon stopped and began to vegetate for good ... just watching TV and doing a bit of light reading. She had very little company, and she was no longer interested in going out, especially on her own. And of course Walter was still always busy with his work.

In the summer of 1972, Peter took his “finals” and did very well as usual, so he proceeded into the fourth year to complete his Maths Tripos. Now he began to focus all his optional academic work on gaming theory and computing. He had access to some very large mainframe computers, which allowed him to devise and run all sorts of simulations which were really novel in those days ...

Back at home, Walter’s private trade had now dropped right off. He was getting tired of trying to maintain it, and he and Amy didn’t really need the extra money now, with their very simple lifestyle and no kids to support. So he closed down his home operation, and at last began to relax in front of the TV with Amy every evening. She was very, very pleased about that.

* * *

In 1973 Peter completed the final part of his degree and left Cambridge. While most of his contemporaries were buying new suits ready for their first graduate jobs, he was selling his motorbike and shopping around for an old camper van. There were only two ground rules, he told me — its engine had to be recently reconditioned and in very good order, and he would also invest in roadside breakdown cover. Typical gambler’s caution!

He toured England for four months that summer, visiting as many horse and greyhound tracks as he could, observing and learning all the time, and sleeping alone in his van every night. He wrote just one letter to me, and one to Mum and Dad.

Then in late autumn he turned up on their doorstep again, and despite his dislike of “employment” he went to work in an Orlesbury betting shop for the next few months. His costs were minimal again, and his fund continued to increase.

That was the winter of the three-day week and the start of a long period of economic upheaval. But I don’t think that impacted Peter’s careful plans or operations very much at all ...

In the spring of 1974, now aged nearly twenty-three and with a very respectable cash pot, he took himself and his camper van off to London. He found a cheap room not far from Paddington Station, with free side-street parking (those were the days!) and easy access by bus and tube to the West End, and he began his new life as a trainee professional gambler. I still have the postcard he sent me that week, to let me know his new address. I visited him there soon afterwards, and he told me the state of his Plan ...

‘You know it’s always been my aim to study and practice a wide range of betting scenarios, Rob. So that I could establish which ones proved to offer the most reliable returns for me and my particular skills and style.

‘I’ve concluded that, in the short term, I need to find a steady stream of inexperienced punters with a bit of loose money — just like I did back in the sixth-form! — who can be stimulated one way or another to challenge me in very short games of just about anything, and at attractive odds for them. For example, they might pay five pounds to play me, and if they beat me they win ten pounds and get back their original stake.

‘I’m certain that I’ll almost always beat them, because I’m now very skilled across the board, and I know all the percentages and so on. And on the rare occasions when I don’t win, I’ll simply accept no more challenges from that person, and move on. And my predictions of those potential losses are factored into my business plan ...

‘Of course, if I come across a group of people who might all be interested in challenging me, one after the other, I might just contrive to lose the first of the games. They’ll probably have put their best man forward anyway!

‘And the key words in all of this are “very short games”, Rob. If I’m going to make a good profit over a given brief period — each and every day, in reality, otherwise my strategy for this sort of operation will be clearly failing — I’ll need to play a large number of those short games to generate a big enough turnover. Especially if I actually choose to lose the occasional one ...

‘So, assuming I’m right about my skills and the various odds and so on, all I need to do now is identify the scenarios for locating those people and persuading them to take me on. And then finding another bunch the next day, and the next, and so on. It’s going to be fun just trying. It’ll be even more fun if I succeed!’

‘Oh dear ...’

‘No, really Donna, it’s going to be all right!’

Peter had made provision for six months’ rent and living expenses, and resolved to carefully risk the whole of his remaining pot as a brave experiment over the first three months. If his strategy worked, he would then risk the whole increased pot just once more, for another three months. But if it failed, either in the first wave or the second, he would do one of two things: either re-start the whole process of building his fund from scratch by tolerating a few months’ intensive temporary work at London pay rates, or abandon the whole idea and seek out a conventional job supported by his fine Cambridge degree.

But he quickly discovered he had cracked it! He found a number of sources for willing punters, here and there and everywhere, and he did win most of his games, and even with some of those “strategic losses” he achieved a 50% uplift in his pot over the first three months. And in the next quarter he discovered additional supplies of “customers” and maintained his win rate, so by the end of his glorious six-month experiment he had more than doubled his working pot.

So he made his big life decision. This would work, and he would stick at it. And he would steadily turn up the dials on every control, but always keep himself well away from the edge of the cliff.

So in autumn 1974 he continued the process, still on a three-month basis. But now, after setting aside the next quarter’s rent and expenses, he would only risk 50% of his remaining pot, to give himself a cushion against short-term crises. He knew he was very unlikely to lose money on any day, given his proven fine techniques, but the source of punters might suddenly dry up — that would always remain his biggest dependency — and he might then be forced to stimulate demand by temporarily raising the prize money on offer. But only as and when really necessary.

His caution was wise, but he never hit that problem. When I finally had a change of scenery of my own, that December, and moved from my pokey little flat into a larger and brighter one just round the corner — complete with phone at last! — Peter deigned to visit me for an hour or so. He reported all this good news, and assured me that everything was still going very well.

He didn’t make it “home” for our family Christmas that year. But a full twelve months later, when we did briefly meet up again at Mum and Dad’s, he told me that even after covering all his costs throughout 1975, his “available” pot was now 50% larger. He was still living very modestly, of course, and this was not yet the stuff of fortunes. But the snowball was rolling, and as long as he carefully managed his living expenses, and kept his eyes and ears well open to opportunities at all times, he was now set up for a playful, self-sufficient life.

I wrote Peter a letter in the spring of 1976 — nothing very important, just asking him how things were going — but I never got a reply. It turned out that early in the year he’d sold his camper van and used the proceeds to cover the on-cost of a better flat a bit closer to town — not for any reasons of greater luxury, just to avoid time-wasting and to remove the discomforts and distractions of his original cheap and cheerful digs. But he’d forgotten to tell me that. I only discovered his new address when I next saw Mum and Dad.

He visited them in Orlesbury just once that year, in the autumn, to give them the news he later gave me by letter. He was busy clearing the decks in London and preparing to go abroad, to seek some long-awaited pleasure and a real fortune. He finally departed at the end of November.

I went home for Christmas as usual. Peter had sent Mum and Dad a picture postcard from Baden-Baden in Germany. He wished us Seasons Greetings, in advance, and told us he had begun some careful, low-risk experimentation at the Casino, and was investigating the opportunities for some private gaming on the side ...

* * *

So the family’s official Outsider was now far from home, and his communications over the next few years dropped to a sort of minimally acceptable level — one postcard per arrival in a new country, another after any change of address, and a single annual Christmas card sent to Orlesbury with a brief update on his latest successes. There were no phone calls from him; Mum and Dad could still not receive them without making special arrangements, but Peter would anyway have considered them very expensive and quite unnecessary.

After a few months in Baden-Baden, he moved on to Cannes, where he directed his attention to unprofessional punters — ordinary but relatively well-off men (they were usually men) who were there on a lads’ holiday, or attending a film convention or other business meeting, and who didn’t want to suffer any more big losses after their first sorry night at the Casino, but fancied their luck against the quiet little guy who hung around in the hotel lounges and bars and offered to pull together a special little poker school for the coming night. Apparently he usually came out of those sessions with a very handsome return. He would never meet any of those nice benefactors again, but that was just how he liked it — there were plenty of those lounges and bars, and always lots more fish in the sea.

Some time later he transferred to Majorca, and repeated that successful strategy with a very similar set of optimistic one-night companions. And then he switched to the headier heights of Monaco, hoping to up the stakes and the corresponding returns. But he found too few punters of the type he needed there. Monte Carlo’s clientele was a tad too sophisticated to take up his offer in sufficient numbers. So after a few months of relative relaxation, he wrote to say he’d decided to have a major change of scenery and move across to the Far East.

But before he’d completed his latest travel plans, something came up which led him to make a small change to his itinerary ...

‘Robert, your story is fascinating, but it does still seem to be mostly about Peter ...’

‘Well, his life always was a lot more interesting than mine, wasn’t it?’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t say that ...’

‘Come on, Donna! I would!’

‘All right, then! But anyway — how were you and Charlie doing, while all this was going on?’

‘Ah, business was booming, my dear! We always had a backlog of well-paid work, and I had no complaints at all about my uncomplicated life. And as it happens, I’m just about to describe the next big event in the Kerr family history ...’

Proceed to Chapter 5 ...

Copyright © 2010 by Michael E. Lloyd

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