Like many gambling legends, it’s not important whether there is any truth to the story. What’s more important is whether people believe them. My favorites are the ones that have a story arc and a tidy resolution. This one was found in one of the casino at Monte Carlo’s early promotional pamphlets printed around 1880.
A modestly affluent young couple decided to take their honeymoon in Monte Carlo. It was an attractive honeymoon destination because of the world-class entertainment along with fine food offered at a reasonable price.
The husband set aside 3,000 francs for gambling. He sat down at a roulette table and began testing his luck. Immediately, his money started to dwindle. Inexperienced at roulette, his stack dwindled to just 160 francs, but he wasn’t terribly upset. He hadn’t come to Monte Carlo with the expectation of winning big.
At the suggestion of another gambler who noticed the young husband’s inexperience, he began playing the colors rather than the numbers. He played red and won. Letting his bet ride, he won again. He hit a streak of fourteen straight wins on red and amassed 112,000 francs. After a loss, he changed to black and began another run until he had acquired 260,000 francs.
His young wife, who was standing behind him, wanted him to collect his winnings and stop, but by this point he was so focused on the game he didn’t notice her. He was a high roller now, betting the maximum of 12,000 francs per spin. When he hit an unlucky streak and lost three times in a row, his wife became desperate. He wouldn’t listen to her, and she feared their new wealth would evaporate as fast as they had earned it. She pretended to faint, and collapsed to the ground. It did no good. Her husband didn’t notice. He had just lost two more hands and he was sweating, mesmerized by the ball racing around its track.
A gentleman tapped him on the shoulder and said, “I think your wife is ill. Perhaps dying.”
He dismissed the man and continued to play despite the fact that a group of men were carrying his fallen wife out of the casino. Finally, he won again, and was momentarily relieved. He searched for his wife to reassure her that he was back on the right track, but she was gone. He pulled his wager from the table and considered the situation. He had a decision to make. He now had 210,000 francs, and he felt guilty for falling below the 260,000 francs he had once reached. If he could get back to that point…
He fought off the gambling high and pulled his money together. He rushed back to the hotel where the men had taken his wife. He found her apparently unconscious on the bed. He put his bag of money atop a chest of drawers and leaned over to check on his wife. Immediately, she sprang up and grabbed the bag of money. She threw the bag into the drawer, locked it, and put the key in her pocket. She then rang the bell for the porter and prepared to check out of the hotel. Finally understanding his wife’s prudence, the husband agreed to leave Monte Carlo, and within an hour they were on a train with their new riches, ready to begin their life as a married couple.
Feel the crunching of the shells-
What a world of broken homes this grind foretells!
How they glitter, glitter, glitter
on the crowded beach tonight!
Gone are displaced crawling critters,
replaced now by piles of litter.
Stereos boom, boom, boom
and drunken parties loom.
Oh, how I long to hear
the ocean swells
from the shells, shells, shells, shells,
shells, shells, shells –
From the murmurs and the echoes of the shells.
Find those perfect, hollowed shells
What a barren world their scarcity foretells!
Their tenants ran, consumed with fright.
Plastic ice-chests they could not fight.
Their homes are in ruin,
and in shattered pieces float
On shallow water of a sandcastle’s moat.
On this dune
is not a single well-formed shell.
I begin to feel frustration swell.
what will be trash! – hear me tell
Consumer greed they do compel.
We’re given things and dreams
but no shells, shells, shells.
But no shells, shells, shells, shells,
Shells, shells, shells –
Lost is the finding and collecting of the shells!
Ah, see the perfect ivory shells,
See them! See those shells that Sally sells!
Her booth was hidden by the night.
That big one’s mine– the price is right!
Cash, credit card, or even check
I buy and wear it around my neck.
The time is late.
Except for the few around a midnight fire
the crowds have gone
and to my desire
waves have risen higher, higher, higher.
The ocean is a choir.
I’ll sit here forever and ever
On broken shells or whatever.
Under the light of a brand new moon
On the shells, shells, shells!
On the shells, shells, shells, shells
Shells, shells, shells –
I’m wearing and I’m crushing all the shells.
The other day I found myself in the hallway of the vacant 13th floor of an office building. As I approached the intersection with another hallway, I heard someone whistling Mary Had a Little Lamb. When I turned the corner at the intersection I came face to face with the construction worker who was responsible for the performance. He quickly modified his tune by throwing in some random notes to obscure the original melody.
It didn’t fool me, and I thought about calling him out on it. But then I remembered all the times when I thought I’d been alone and whistled corny songs. I myself had been a victim of music bullying, teased for liking or whistling uncool music or for being clueless to the latest music trends.
In Elementary School, I was a kid unsure of how to defend myself for whistling Eine Kleine Nachtmusik while walking down the hall. I didn’t have enough “street sense” at the time to say, “Oh, I’m just whistling that annoying IHOP song.” Instead, I’d confess that I’d been sharing a Mozart tune with the world and would deal with the subsequent snickers.
Not only was my whistled music ridiculed. Later, in my high school and college years, my mix tapes were always rejected at parties and social gatherings, perhaps for my persistent inclusion of Safety Dance (the most fun song ever) on every mix.
I’m sure we all have a favorite song we’re too ashamed of to admit. Why is this? Why should a particular arrangement of tones be more culturally acceptable than others? I think we would all like to release our inner Carlton Banks, which perhaps is why the Carlton dance resonates with so many people. We would like the opportunity to be happy without fear of derision for the very thing that makes us happy.
What is interesting to me is the whistling phenomenon. What we whistle is normally an unconscious decision. We’re repeating something we’ve recently heard or recalling something close and familiar. We just do it. A melody takes hold and emerges from our pursed lips. And it always happens when we’re happy or at least solidly content (I’ve never considered whistling Mozart’s Requiem when in a depressed mood). So, if the melodies we whistle are associated with happiness, why would we suppress the other outlets of these songs for the sake of social conformity? Do we value acceptance more than happiness? Should we be ashamed for being a whistling rebel?
You’re one of fifty-two people who mill about in a large room. Each of you holds a playing card against your forehead. No one knows their own card, but you can see each other’s. The goal of this little game is to pair off with the highest card possible, but to accomplish this, your request for partnership has to be accepted by the other. Of course the Aces and Kings are the most popular and they pretty much know right away that they’re the cream of the crop. It’s instant mutual acceptance when an Ace requests to partner with another Ace. It works fairly quickly with the Kings as well. By the time this experiment is over, for the most part, Aces have paired with Aces, tens with tens, sixes with sixes, and twos with twos.
It must be kind of depressing being a two, being the last in the room to find a partner, watching all the high cards go, then the middle ones, and experiencing the horrible realization that you’re the low card that no one wants to pair with.
Research has shown this is how couples typically pair off in the real world. Hot women tend to be with hot guys. Sevens with sevens. Twos with twos. Through the process of assessing interest and receiving rejections, we get a pretty good gauge of where we stand relative to others, and we choose our partner accordingly.
The popular belief is that beauty is subjective—beauty is in the eye of the beholder—but really, we all hold similar opinions as to who we consider physically beautiful. Even people in one culture can easily pick out beauty in another culture. We are hard wired to perceive beauty.
So we do our best to enhance ourselves, to add value to our card. We’ll diet and exercise to maintain the best proportions or wear makeup to project the illusion of youth. We do this because it’s necessary to attract a partner with the most sexual allure. We value other traits too, but physical beauty reigns supreme. Talents can add to one’s overall allure but it’s more like one suit value trumping another. Adding a Harvard degree to a killer body might make you the Ace of Hearts to the Ace of Clubs. In other words, talent, charm, and intellect can increase the value of your suit, but not your pip value.
We often talk about the shallowness of physical beauty and how real beauty is something within, and there is a certain internal beauty we do admire. It’s this internal beauty that makes a close friend or relative loveable in a heartwarming kind of way, but this kind of beauty doesn’t translate to romantic attraction. They are two distinct kinds of beauty—one endears us to many friends and the other excites a potential romantic partner.
So can a Six ever make it with an Ace? It happens but it’s not common. If we’re slightly devious, we’ll try some sleight of hand. Alcohol to level the playing field. The use of power and/or intimidation. Money.
Our stories, myths and legends try to convince the lower valued cards to hold out hope and that maybe in some perfect universe, Marisa Tomei might be attracted to short, stocky, bald men.
The lesson that many of our most cherished love stories attempt to drive home is that inner beauty is everything. But in what fairy tale is Prince Charming a three hundred pound oaf with big ears and acne? The truth is, most fairy tales and stories are populated by pretty heroes and ugly villains.
So what about the twos and threes? What is their destiny? To become witches? Criminals? Is this what we expect from less physically attractive people? With constant rejection and low societal expectations, wouldn’t a two or three naturally come to resent the world? I’m sure at some point we’ve all felt that sinking feeling of being the last man or woman standing in the room—it sucks—but we all haven’t faced this rejection on a day-to-day basis. This rejection does not come from only potential sexual mates. Pulchronomics, which studies the economics of beauty, shows us prettier people earn more money than their plain counterparts. Handsome children earn more attention from teachers. It’s no wonder that criminals tend to be uglier than most.
Obviously, being ugly does not make one a criminal just like being depressed doesn’t cause someone to commit suicide. There is, however, a striking correlation, and I wonder if we fully consider and appreciate the consequences of being physically unattractive and receiving constant rejection.
What we do tend to do is ridicule those who are preoccupied with their looks. But in a world where looks has a greater bearing on future success than education, a focus on primping actually seems to be the smarter path to take.
This being said, we also tend to overvalue the benefits of beauty in relation to overall happiness. Perhaps being the perpetual object of desire makes it easier to engage in extra-marital affairs, which can lead to painful divorces, breakups, or love triangles. Perhaps the promiscuity associated with Hollywood is less indicative of the loose morals of show business and more the result of extraordinarily beautiful people constantly in the midst of each other.
So what’s the lesson? Obviously beauty matters more than it seems appropriate to acknowledge. But the more important question is what can we change? Do we try to make the not-so-physically attractive more eye-appealing and encourage vanity? Or do we try to change the perception and importance of beauty? Can we really transform something that is hard-wired within us?
I think it would be nice if we could occasionally ask for a reshuffling of the deck.
In the mid 60’s, a young Mario Andretti worked his way through the ranks of professional drivers by racing stock cars. A rubber company sponsor delivered the tires to the track without treads, so that the proper pattern could be cut in on site, customized for the conditions and track and driving style. This was state-of-the-art, for everyone knew that a tire had to have treads to grip the track.
One day at practice, Mario anxiously awaited the delivery of his tires so he could shake out a new car for the race that weekend. But the delivery was delayed until an hour before the track closed. Mario, not wishing to lose a day of practice, asked that they be installed as they were- slick, uncut. Every one warned him he would slide right off the track for everybody knew a tire had to have grooves to function properly.
Mario insisted, saying he was more interested in just getting to know the car, and would push for speed another day. He challenged the track, pushing only as fast as he felt he could control the car.
He set a new track record that day, not just by a few seconds, but by fifty per cent.
Reason said that tread gripped the road, kept the car from sliding off due to angular momentum on the corners. No one doubted the assumption. Mario demonstrated the actual physics, overlooked by a generation of reasonable people. The grip of the tire is determined in large part by the area of rubber in the contact patch, the more the better. Cutting grooves into the tire only diminished the amount of rubber in contact with the track, making them less “sticky” than having no tread at all.
Now everyone runs on slicks- it is the reasonable thing to do.
We don’t believe the dinosaurs thought about the comet that wiped them out, but I’m sure it pissed them off. The whole consciousness of Gaia, Mother Earth, was offended by that death blow. Life had evolved to fill every niche; land, air, and sea teemed with it. Stable for millions of years, Mother Earth had achieved perfection, she thought.
Then that outside force, a war hammer from the stars, and Nature started over, this time not just to fill every biosphere of the earth, but to face down threats from the stars as well. She knew it would take more than just biology; it depended on emergence, characteristics of a complex system where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Complex systems like our large brains; we call it intelligence, the ability to reason.
20 million years later and here we are. Intelligence is expensive, the power to reason comes at great energy costs to the organism, and there has only been one species that has made the cost workable. Us, with maybe the large sea mammals holding a back-up copy of the basic software.
There was a time when the human species was on the endangered list, a time when there were only a few thousand of us. But we made it through that narrow gate, we made our large expensive brains work for us, and now we rule the planet. Some of nature’s processes are still outside of our control, but we’re working on gaining control of even those.
So, we are Gaia’s tool, evolved to extend the shield of life beyond the boundaries of our own atmosphere. And what are we doing? Struggling with petty arguments, backing away from the great challenge for which nature created us, turning our backs on the stars.
Today we struggle with a government that has shut down, unable to do even the most basic of things. Our sky watch is dark. And in less than a month, an asteroid will pass between us and the orbit of the moon, death whistling by to remind us that the universe is uncaring, if not downright hostile.
The sky is falling. Reason has failed. Winter is coming.
It was no surprise that Roger Federer breezed through the first three rounds of the 2013 US Open. Even though his ranking has faltered, dropping now to number seven after his amazing resurgence in 2012 that saw him briefly regain the number one ranking, we still expect him to win. He’s Roger Federer. Watching Federer is, as David Foster Wallace described, a religious experience. After his loss to Tommy Robredo in the fourth round of the US Open and his early exit at Wimbledon, we are now wondering, what’s happened to Roger?
Is Age Catching Up to Him?
The logical answer is that he is simply getting old. Age eventually brings down our greatest sports icons. Yet Federer is only 32. Michael Jordan was just beginning his second run of domination at 32. Watching Federer against Robredo, it appeared that Federer was the better player. His grace on the court is still evident. His agility is there as his incredible shot making ability. He still shows that he is the most technically proficient tennis player in the history of tennis. So where is the drop off?
Is it Something Physical?
Physical concerns are always an issue with age, especially with tennis players. The game is violent on the joints. Think of this. A tennis player goes from a near sprint to a complete stop, applying an enormous amount of pressure on the knees, hips, and back. It’s one thing to do this on grass or clay where the softer surface provides more give, but on the hard courts, the body takes a beating. Every tennis player is eventually going to limp off the court.
But Federer has avoided most of these physical ailments. He has never missed an extended amount of playing time. Why? Probably because he is the most relaxed tennis player we’ve ever seen. Compare a still shot of Federer striking a ball with one of Nadal. Tension causes more injuries than athletes tend to realize. Federer has remained healthy because of his ability to relax. I’m sure he’s employed some form of autogenic training along with meditation to achieve this level of calmness on the court. Despite a sore back in the early summer, Federer went into the US Open claiming to be completely healthy. He certainly looked physically healthy.
So why is Roger losing?
I’ve always argued that the difference between the number 1 player in the world and the number 100 is actually quite small. Let’s look first at why Roger was winning. When he was at his peak, he was about 1 point per game better than the lower ranked opponents. 1 point per game doesn’t seem like that much separation, but it will get you results like 6-2, 6-1. Why was Roger better? Of course there’s his technical proficiency. Secondly, he had superior shot making ability from defensive positions (i.e. his squash shot).
Thirdly, for ten years he has been mentally dominant. This is where he gained separation from the top players. Against top 40 players, he was probably about 0.5 points better per game and against top ten players, a little less than that. Compared to the top tier of players who all had similar technical proficiency and shot making ability, Federer maintained a consistent edge because he believed he had an edge and because he did everything in his power to ensure that his opponents would not have the belief. This is mental dominance.
It reminds me of a scene in Orson Card’s Ender’s Game when Ender explains why he continued to beat up a bully even after he’d knocked him down.
“Knocking him down won the first fight. I wanted to win all the next ones, too.”
Federer had to win just about all his matches to maintain his aura of invincibility and plant a seed in every opponent’s mind that they could not beat him. With the exception of Nadal, he succeeded in this. There was no saving it for just the big tournaments. He brought it every tournament, playing with the fear that if lost just once to somebody, maybe, just maybe they might begin to believe they could beat him. One of the most dangerous weapons an opponent can have is belief.
Then Nadal beat him on grass. Then Djokovic and Murray, which shouldn’t have been that farfetched because in ability they were equals. The only thing that had previously prevented them from beating Federer was the lack of belief they could beat Federer.
With others knowing he could be beaten, he lost the mental edge he had held over his opponents for so many years.
But losing to Robredo? And then Igor Stakhovsky? How could this happen? Federer blamed his losses on confidence, but this is only part of the bigger picture.
Where has he slipped?
I remember a comment Pete Sampras made shortly after he retired from tennis. He said that the biggest deterioration with age is not physical. It’s mental.
It’s mentally exhausting being the best. Physically, Federer feels fine which is why it’s so hard for him to understand why he’s losing and why he legitimately seems baffled when he does lose. He still strikes the ball as solidly as he ever has. He has not lost a step as some analysts maintain. He just gives up a few more free points than he used to. Tiny slips in concentration. A fraction worse than before. But when the margins are so small, especially with the top players, wins turn to losses.
Mental slippage? Really?
As brutal as tennis is on the body, it may be more brutal on the mind, at least for people blessed/cursed with the compulsive desire to be the best. Training the mind to concentrate for extended periods of time takes practice. An interesting bi-product of this intense concentration is the seemingly absurd but true anomaly that when a top competitive tennis player comes off the court, he can recall every point in a match. They’re not consciously memorizing points; it’s just their level of focus is so high and they are so in tune with what’s going on that this notion becomes possible.
Thanks to mental toughness pioneers such as Dr. Jim Loehr, the techniques for staying focused and relaxed has advanced in tennis as much as the technology in equipment and the understanding of biomechanics. Free points are harder to come by and top players no longer have the luxury of being able to slip in and out of focus like McEnroe and Connors did when they had their outbursts or interactions with the crowd. It used to be that “being in the zone” was a rare achievement. Now, it’s a daily necessity. There are those who argue that tennis has become more boring because the personalities have become much more subdued. But I prefer watching the mental giants like Federer because simply because it’s incredible what they’re doing out there, sustaining excellence point after point. Mental giants can be intimidating in a quiet way.
A male tennis player has to sustain focus for three to four hours (sometimes even more) in a closely contested three-out-of-five set match. The normal amount of time the human mind can maintain uninterrupted concentration is about two hours. (However, with the vast number of diversions available to us, we are probably evolving—or devolving—to the point where even two hours is a stretch.) This is why movies typically do not run much longer than two hours and when they do, the audience begins to feel fatigued. This is why professional poker players immediately stop playing when they feel mentally fatigued.
In competition, or when the stakes really matter (in a war zone perhaps), we can push our minds to do a little more. But pushing the mind like this is impossible to sustain forever. Even chess players retire. Federer has done this week in and week out for over ten years, not just staying atop the rankings, but pummeling his opponents. Because of his success, he has played more matches than anyone else. But now the mental strain is beginning to show even before the physical deterioration. During his fourth round loss against Robredo, the shots were there, but there were a few more loose points than we would expect to see from Federer.
What to Expect from Federer Looking Forward
There’s no doubt Federer continues to have the competitive desire to be the best, and I disagree completely with those who suggest Federer should retire or that he’s even lost a step. Physically, he should be able to compete with the best for the next three or for years. If he rests and refreshes mentally, he should be able to put together a run like he did to end the 2012 season. But the days of dominating day after day, week after week, year after year are over. Unfortunately, the human mind can be pushed only so far.