Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mind Games

Poker isn’t a card game. It’s a head game. It’s a duel, where the cards take the place of the flintlock pistols. The cards don’t matter when the head is right, and when the head isn’t right the best hand in the world won’t stop the singing of the Undertaker Song.

Living proof of that this week in Las Vegas – where else? – at the World Series of Poker, the WSOP. To the outsider, it looked like Hoyt Boyle lost his reason, prior to his losing his all. He made a crazy call on the river against a hand that he never looked good to beat, and then John Sherman took out his bowie knife, cut out Boyle’s heart and posted it home to Gary, IN.

How did it happen? Boyle didn’t lose his head in the last hand – he had it taken from him an hour before that, when there were four others sitting at the table. It just took those sixty minutes for the penny to drop.

Boyle had been doing so well. He’s not a pro – he’s just a guy that played a little in college, played with the boys after work every Thursday payday, and then really got stuck in when online poker took off at the start of the 21st Century. Now he was in Vegas, courtesy of one of the online companies, playing in the Big Time and loving it.

John Sherman is no stranger to the big time, and has been playing as a pro since he started shaving daily. His reputation isn’t that of the old school gent and he doesn’t care. A dollar bill has yet to display feelings, and that’s fine with Sherman. He was the man everybody else was watching at the table. Especially when he gutted the hapless Hoyt Boyle.

The game is Texas Hold ‘Em, but what makes it particularly terrifying is that the betting has no limit. You can bet anything from ten bucks to ten thousand, and it’s a dizzying thing to push ten grand into the middle of a card table and know that it might never be coming back.

It was very dizzying for Hoyt Boyle. He’d been doing so well, only going on gold and pulling more than one clicker when he should have got a spanking. So when he saw the two eights in the pocket, he bet five hundred with some level of confidence.

A level of confidence that quickly evaporated when Sherman saw the five hundred, and kicked it up to five thousand.

Four thousand, five hundred simoleons to stay in the game. And with three rounds of betting left. What would the final bill be if it didn’t work out? How much could he afford to lose?

Not that much. Hoyt Boyle folded. John Sherman smiled at him, and casually flicked up his hole cards. The seven of hearts, the two of clubs. Nothing. He was sniggering as he pulled in the pot. Hello Rube – welcome to the big time.

So one hour later, after another player’s hand being almost good enough restored Hoyt’s nerve a little, he was ready when he drew ace-jack. By this time there was only Hoyt and Sherman left, Sherman with a considerable advantage in chips, but Hoyt still alive. Hoyt bet five hundred. Sherman called, but didn’t raise. The flop came two, ace, jack, all diamonds.

Hoyt had a high two pair, and two shots at filling a house. Sherman hadn’t bet – there was no way, surely, Sherman could beat aces and jacks? That sniggering SOB was never sitting on a diamond flush. Hoyt bet a grand.

Sherman saw, and raised fifteen thousand and fifty. It was the fifty that probably did it. Hoyt had fifteen thousand left in front of him, stacked neatly and easy for Sherman to count. The extra fifty was a goad, and a goad that worked. It was like he was saying “Come prove that I haven’t filled that diamond flush, boy.” Hoyt went all in, and turned up his ace and jack.

Sherman didn’t turn any diamonds. Unfortunately, he did turn a pair of twos. Trip twos, never lose. Fourth Street was the eight of clubs, the river the suicide king and that was the end of Hoyt Boyle, of Gary, IN. Sherman moved on to the next table, Hoyt moved on to the bar.

“For me, it stung, but for him it was nothing personal, you know?” Hoyt told me. “That’s why poker is played in Vegas, I guess. You need cold blood to survive in the desert, like the lizards and geckos. You need cold blood to play this game too. Nothing else will save you.”

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Why is the New Indiana Jones Movie So Very Disappointing?

Nearly a year ago, a photograph of Harrison Ford in his iconic Indiana Jones costume surfaced on the internet. It was the first shot of the standard marketing campaign of major studio movies in the 21st century, the whetting of the fanboy appetite through online media. What the fans did not know until this weekend though, when the movie went on general release all around the world, is that the picture of the aged icon was about as a good as it was going to get.

As William Goldman reminds the world in his book Which Lie Did I Tell?, no-one sets out to make a bad movie. But that is exactly what Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is. People writing that the movie isn’t that bad are either being kind or else are so devoted to the original trilogy that they’re blinded by the glaring flaws in this latest instalment. Most people will leave the theatre with a vague sense of unease – they know they didn’t particularly have a good time, but it wasn’t awful, was it?

Yes, it was. Indiana Jones IV bears all the scars of its protracted birth. The script has been through development hell, and the scorch marks are still to be seen on the celluloid. There are certain fundamentals that must be obeyed in narrative for this type of story to work. An Indiana Jones picture is never going to be Battleship Potemkin; it must obey the rules of genre fiction.

HC McNeile, the man that wrote the Bulldog Drummond stories, believed a good adventure story is like a good golf shot; it should begin explosively, rise swiftly, and then fall to earth, stopping dead at the pin. This is the case in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the first movie of the Indiana Jones series. The explosive beginning is the rolling boulder; the revelation that the Nazis have discovered the Ark of the Covenant is the rising arc, and the denouement is God’s terrible vengeance and that guy’s face melting before His wrath. That’s a picture.

By contrast, the narrative of Crystal Skull (one feels so Hollywood in referring to movies in a word or two!) is all over the shop. It’s difficult to follow, there’s too much detail and, overall, it’s hard to really give a fig. In Raiders, Adolf Hitler is attempting to gain control of a device that would render his Reich invincible; in Crystal Skull – um, well, you tell me. What does that skull do exactly, except give John Hurt the opportunity to try his hand at what modern cineastes have to come to understand as the Patrick Stewart or Sir Ian McKellen role?

It’s nice, of course, to see Hurt and Ray Winstone make some good money in this sort of venture, but what purpose do their characters serve, exactly? What do they do? As for Shia LeBeouf, the only reason for his presence seems to be as a person to say “Daddio” at appropriate intervals.

In the slang sense, as opposed to recognising paternity, as it were. Which is another problem with the movie, and one distressingly common to sequels. The temptation in making sequels is to emphasise the character traits that we know and love (and thanks to which the producers are very rich people). Unfortunately, this often happens at the expense of narrative.

Example: when Marion Ravenwood appears in Crystal Skull, she echoes her first appearance in Raiders, with a “well, well, well – if it isn’t Indiana Jones!” type of line. But in Crystal Skull, she sent for Indiana Jones in the first place. She should be expecting him. People don’t always register this of discrepency, but it does generate a vague unease, and this unease then becomes one of the reasons why people leave the theatre wondering why exactly they didn’t have the blast they were hoping for. These sort of inconsistencies litter the script, and they are the stretch marks of time spent in Development Hell. The Jones’s family moment in the quicksand is particularly wretched.

The other things that litter the script are action sequences. Action sequences, even in an action movie, are like sugar in your tea. Just enough is sublime; too much is treacle. There are far too many action sequences in Crystal Skull. It’s like Spielberg and Lucas thought they needed to shove in as many as they could and in doing it they lost a lot of the charm of the original iteration of Indiana Jones.

Which was this: when Indiana Jones gets beaten up, it hurts. It never knocks much of a stir out of James Bond, you’ll notice, even the more realistic Daniel Craig version, who took those shots to the nuts very well indeed, all things considered. But Indy was like TV detective Jim Rockford, getting beaten up all the time and hating it. One of the iconic moments in Raiders was when Indy and Marion are on the steamship, making their escape. Marion is looking at her reflection in one of those reversible mirrors and, in attempting to reverse the mirror, delivers Indy a tremendous upper cut with the end of the mirror. He ruefully rubs his chin and remarks that it’s not the years – it’s the mileage.

Now that Indy is showing both years and mileage, Spielberg and Lucas had a tremendous chance to run with that idea, the vulnerable part of Doctor Jones. And they missed it, every time. There are some throwaway references to Harrison Ford’s age, and the forced setting of the movie in the fifties, which sits particularly badly with the whole flavour of the series, but they don’t work because while they tell, they don’t show, and this is in violation of the one cardinal rule of narrative. It’s an opportunity persistently missed, and it’s very disappointing.

Is there any bright side? Well, the latest trailer for the new Batman, with the late Heath Ledger as The Joker, looks absolutely fantastic. That’s something.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Is It Just Me, or Do Those No to Lisbon Posters Seem Strangely Familiar?

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Monday, May 26, 2008

Irish Rail Redefine Laws Governing Space, Time and the Physical Universe

It's no wonder that Irish rail are having trouble getting that Bolshevik down in Cork to drink his pint of salt and respond to the driver's lash. It seems they have considerably bigger fish to fry.

Your faithful narrator of contemporary Irish life was on the DART last week, and spotted a remarkable poster on the wall of the carriage. Irish railways were never noted for their ability for arriving on time, of course. You may remember Percy French’s thoughts on the matter, or perhaps the discussion of the steam-men at the start of The Quiet Man. But this new poster takes the biscuit, plate and all. It does nothing less than subvert the very laws of physics themselves, challenging all we understand about the fundamental nature of the universe.

The poster features a picture of a conductor conducting an orchestra. Below that, there is a green field with black lettering. The lettering reads:

Reliability 99.8%
Punctuality 93.3%

At this point, the eyebrow should be rising in proportion to the dropping of the jaw. It’s the decimal points in the percentages, you see – so reminiscent of the elections in the halcyon days in Iraq, when Saddam would win by 99.8% of the vote, the .2% showing that Iraq was indeed a free society. At the bottom of the poster, the small print says that the statistics are independently verified. It does not say by whom. Could there be something in this?

There is no need, however, to petition the Government under the Freedom of Information Act to find out just who has been doing Irish Rail’s 'rithmetic. The problem is much worse than that. Because, just above that small print, Irish Rail defines what it means by punctuality.

Punctuality, as defined by Irish Rail, means arriving at the destination not later than ten minutes after the scheduled time.

Not on time. Within ten minutes of being on time is what Irish Rail defines as punctual.

How astonishing. The problem is even worse than is immediately obvious, as a glance at the schedule will immediately make apparent. A train leaves Dublin Connolly every morning at 8:27, arriving at Lansdowne Road at 8:36. This is a nine minute journey, one minute less the ten minutes bounded by Irish Rail’s definition of “punctual.” And that means that, as far as Irish Rail are concerned, when the train is still at Dublin Connolly, it is also and at the same time at Dublin Tara Street, Dublin Pearse, Grand Canal Dock and Lansdowne Road. Simultaneously.

Has anybody alerted the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about this extra-ordinary local phenomenon in Dublin, Ireland, where finite matter (a train) exists in multiple space (five different train stations, about a mile and a half apart) at the same point in time? Somebody ought to - a great jagged hole in the space-time continuum like that is exactly the sort of stuff they’re interested in at MIT. Dr Einstein famously posited a scenario where time was like a stream, and a traveller traveling at almost light speed could in theory leave his boat, walk back along the bank of the stream and meet himself on the way down. But one senses even that great man would have to throw his hat at what's going on in Irish Rail's particularly peculiar physics laboratory.

This view of material reality would suggest that Ireland is sitting at the edge of a vortex into another parallel dimension, that will completely revolutionise the way we understand the physical world, the universe and humanity’s place in it. It's no wonder that Irish Rail cannot deal with simple industrial relations when they're so busy trying to take on the very laws of physics themselves, the ancient bonds which hold material reality together, the very stuff of the universe itself. Who'd be bothered putting smacht on some Red when you've all that quantum physics in the inbox?

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Table Quiz on Thursday in Tom Maye's Tavern!

Anybody that enjoys table quizzes and porter and nights out and crack and all that good stuff could do a lot worse this coming Thursday evening than make their way as far as Tom Maye’s Tavern at the corner of Dorset and Frederick, Dublin 9, where a full night’s crack is guaranteed for all.

An Spailpín has a friend who has spent time teaching in Belize, one of the poorest countries in Central America. As such, we’re running a table quiz to raise a few pound for schools there; what is not a lot of money here is a considerable sum there, and education is the one and only path from poverty that the people there have. And they know it, travelling miles and miles to school every day for their ticket out and into the world.

It’s a worthy cause and a good night’s crack. It features the usual setup of a tenner a head, tables of four, one hundred questions, a raffle, picture rounds, novelty rounds, crack and associated banter. It kicks off promptly at half-eight and we’d all love to see you there – it’ll be a good deed to set you up nicely for the weekend debauches of the Heineken Cup Final, the Eurovision, Port Láirge in aghaigh an Chláir, or whatever you’re having yourself. Tommy Maye’s, half-eight, Thursday. The only place to be.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Cailliúint na Gruaige

Isteach sa síopa bhearradóra liom tráthnóna De hAoine, agus shuigh mé síos i gcathair éigin os comhair an scatháin. Bhí an bearradóir reidh ag mo chúl, a siosúr in airde aici, mar a bhí an claíomh in airde ag an ArdAingeal Mícheál agus eisean ag dul in aghaidh an dhrochbhuachalla féin.

"Cad uait, a Spailpín Fhánaigh?" ar sise liom.

"Uimhir a dó, a spéirbhean ghleoite," arsa mise. "Thall is abhus."

"Thall is abhus!" ar sise. D'fhág sí síos an siosúr. D'fhéach sí go díreach isteach im' shúile. "An bhfuil tú cinnte?"

"Táim cinnte, agus láncinnte. Tá na fógraí le feicéal le fada agam, agus caithfidh mise an chéad ionsaigh a dhéanamh. Lean ar aghaidh."

"Ceart go leor," ar sise, agus ar aghaidh léi. Tar éis deich nóiméad, bhí an beart déanta, agus beidh cáibín á chaitheamh ag do Spailpín ag cluichí an Samhraidh as seo amach, mise gan anois an mothall a thugadh mo chloigín bocht slán ó theas na gréine.

Tá a fios ag gach chuile fear go bhfuil air an gruaig ag dul ina bán aige nó í a chailliúint go deo agus eisean ag éirí aosta. Ach d'fhir cosúil liomsa, tá cathú mór ann litir a scríobh chuig Dhia ag iarraidh Air cad a rinnemar in A aghaidh go dtarlaíonn an dhá rud dúinn? Tá gruaig liath ag muinir m'athairse go deo; thuigtear in áiteanna éigin gurbh é sin bun ár sloinne, an muin is ghile. Ach tagann an maolachas ón máthar, agus tá sé tagtha liomsa comh maith leis an gruaig liath. Tá an ghruaig atá agam ag éirí liath, agus an gruaig nach bhfuil ag éirí liath, níl sí ann ar chur ar bith.

Tar éis fómhar gruaige an deireadh seachtaine, tá mullach do Spailpín lom go leor. Níl mórán gruaige fágtha ann, agus an méid atá ann tá sí chun imeacht. Tá cuma an leithinis ar mhullach mo chinn anois, agus i gceann cúpla bliain beidh oileán gruaige i lár mo chinn, agus craiceann mo chinnse ar gach uile thaobh de. An bhfaca tú riamh ubh agus cleite bog bán an éin greamaithe uirthí? A leitheoir, beidh ceann an Spailpín ana-cosúil leis an ubh chéanna i gceann cúpla bliain.

Nílim buartha faoi, afách. Sílim féin nach bhfuil rud ar bith sa tsaol comh brónach le fear uallach. Tá sé i bhfad níos measa ag an mbean, agus ní hé an Spailpín amháin ar thug faoi déara é. Scríobh Pól chuig na Corantaigh gurbh glóir do mná í an ghruaig fhada (1 Cor 11:15) Agus tá a fios acu féin, ar ndóigh, agus an obair an déantar, agus an airgead a chaitear, ar ghruaig na mban.

Tá sliocht spéisiúl iontach maidir le gruaig agus cúrsaí graugaireachta in úrscéal iontach Zadie Smith, White Teeth. Tá gruaig cheangailte ag cailín éigin sa leabhar seo - is cailín gorm í - ach ba mhaith léi gruaig díreach. Isteach léi chuig an ngruagaire ar thóir na gruaige dírí seo, agus cuireann an gruagadóir saigheas aigéid ar a ceann chun ceangal na gruaige a scaoileadh. Bhí an pian dóchreite, ach níor bhog an cailín, cé go raibh an ceann trí thine aici. Más é seo praghas gruaige dírigh, cheannóidh sí é.

Agus an fear? Ceannaíonn sé hata, a léitheoir, agus bíonn sé ceart go leor.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Championship 2008

Seán Moran remarked in his Irish Times column on Wednesday that the Championship begins this year with a contest between two teams, Longford and Westmeath, who have no chance of winning the actual competition. And he said it like it was some kind of bad thing.

We sometimes forget that the Championship is like no other team sports competition in the world. There is no facility for transfer of players, meaning that you are blessed or burdened with what accident of birth has delivered unto you, and it’s a knockout competition. The back-door has altered this a little but it remains real by the time you get to the last eight – once you slip up, you’re gone.

In George Will’s marvellous book about major league baseball, Men at Work, Will quotes the former pitcher Warren Spahn’s remarks about winning. Spahn points out that baseball is not a game of winning, but of losing. A .300 batter is considered exceptional, even though a thirty per cent success rate is considered failure in nearly every field of endeavour.

Watch Colm O’Rourke in the Sunday Game studio when he sits back in the chair and explains that it’s all about winning. Colm O’Rourke played for the guts of twenty years, from the late seventies until the early ‘nineties. He has two Celtic Crosses. That’s a ten per cent success rate. That means that for ninety per cent of O’Rourke’s inter-county career he watched someone else go up and collect the big pot, either on telly, in Croke Park or, most bitterly of all, among the vanquished on the field of battle. So if it is indeed all about winning, Colm O’Rourke spent eighteen summers of his life wasting his time.

An Spailpín Fánach does not think O’Rourke wasted eighteen summers, and I’m pretty sure that O’Rourke would do the same again if given the chance. And that’s because Championship is that one sports competition where the old saw is true, and it’s not about winning but about the taking part that makes it the magical occurrence of the year, the highlight of each and every Irish summer.

Longford, Westmeath, Leitrim or New York are unlikely to win any national or provincial summer trophies, but that doesn’t lessen this week for them. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an edge in the border towns like Ballymahon or Moyvore or Mostrim or Rathowen this week, as the daily business is done, or that people don’t pay closer attention to the sports news after the hour on the radio. All that energy isn’t wasted if there’s no gravy on final day. That is the gravy. That’s what makes it all worthwhile, the county colours flying high and proudly on the eve of battle on the field of honour.

An Spailpín Fánach believes that half of county Leitrim is in New York this week, gearing up for the big Gaelic Park clash with New York. Maybe a few of them took the A-Train to the Bronx last night, to watch the Indians beat the Yankees. As they watched Derek Jeter patrol the infield for the Yankees, did they think of what it’d be like if Fate had arranged things differently, and the captain of the Yankees was one of the Jeters of Drumsna or Gortlettragh, and what it would be like to look forward to him carving up the field from wing-back on Sunday, in mortal peril of the sort of hard belts that are dished out at 400 Corlear Av, The Bronx, NY 10463, but motoring on nonetheless, for the sheer pride of the jersey?

Reader, they thought of nothing else. This, this is the Championship at its finest, the heady expectation, the ecstatic fulfilment, the wretched despair. So what if it ends at five to five this Sunday, or if the fight rages on to Dublin in August, to late August, even to – blessèd date! – the third Sunday of September? This is living. This is Championship.

And even so it is in the Kingdom itself, that county which, when it comes to winning titles, is like Cleopatra, daughter of Isis, Queen of the Nile, as described by Shakespeare – when they should be satisfied, they only grow more hungry. And so it is again this year as they prepare for the three in a row, as alluded to already in this space.

So it’s Kerry versus the rest, once more. Who can stop them? Whoever meets them in their first game after the quarter-final. If Kerry are to be stopped, it’s only there they can be caught. The Munster Final is only a training game for them anymore; if they win it’s business as usual, and if they lose they recalibrate and return stronger than ever, à la 2006. But in both games after the Munster final in the past two years Kerry have been vulnerable, insofar as the word applies to the best team in the country. Monaghan caught them stale last year, and Jack O’Connor admitted in his book how blessed Kerry were not only to draw Longford in their first qualifier game, and in Tralee at that. If any noble thought arose in Kerry to offer Longford the home venue, on the basis that the qualifiers are meant to favour the weaker counties, they kept it to themselves.

But if Kerry are cruising by August they will be more or less unstoppable. They have the best team, they have the best panel, and they have learned the lessons of the Ulster revolution of recent years utterly. O’Connor details in his book how the tackle is now completely different in football, even though no rules were changed, and Kerry have adapted best to that. In Kerry, they see football as their game, and they evolve with it better than anyone else. And that’s why they’re the best.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

An Spailpín in the Irish Times

An Spailpín Fánach is flattered once more to be published in this morning's rather historic Irish Times, as one Taoiseach moves on and another is appointed. On the eve of Brian Cowen's ascention, and in a cynical age, it's only fair to take our hats off to the Taoiseach-elect's commitment to Irish and its role in the State as the first language. You can read the full piece here, or for romantics who enjoy the print edition, it's opposite the letters page / the Bertie Ahern supplement.

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Friday, May 02, 2008

But Lately There Ain't Been Much Work, On Account of the Economy...

It was hard not to think of Bruce Springsteen while watching Prime Time’s rather devastating program on the current parlous state of the Irish economy last night. The initial please-please-please don’t let it happen to us hopes of a soft landing have no given way to the grim reality that it isn’t so much a soft landing as stepping off a cliff, and we still don’t know just how much further we have to fall.

RTÉ have the show online, and you can see it at the Prime Time site here. There’s a nice opening montage of images to the tune of (unless I’m very much mistaken) Ella singing Just One of those Things, and then Donagh Diamond gives us the facts. Miriam O’Callaghan interviews five guests in total between the VT, only one of whom is predicting any sort of growth in her industry in the coming year at all. Sadly, she’s in the St Vincent de Paul. It’s all very frightening.

An Spailpín Fánach was in the new shopping centre in Longford last week, on his way back to Dublin after a sad visit to the county Mayo. Longford shopping centre doesn’t get the same ink as Dundrum or Liffey Valley, but it’s as indicative of the Celtic Tiger as any other, because there was never, never, business done in Longford bar horse trading and slashing. And during the boom the population of Longford grew for what must be the first time ever, and they were able to build a shopping centre with lots of chi-chi little outlets selling shoes and accessories and other, likewise, items.

I was there at half-five on Wednesday, and all I saw were the shopgirls leaning on their counters, staring out the door where the shoppers used to enter, but don’t anymore. Things will be worse before they’re better I’m afraid. The cold wind of reality is sweeping through the country now, and it has some devastation left to wreak yet.

And a very happy bank holiday weekend to you all.

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