Boggel stares at the man. Precilla takes a deep breath. Gertruida has never seen anything like it.
The man is in his middel forties, dressed to the nines in black pants, white shirt with a bandana around the neck, and shoes made from an unfortunate crocodile’s remains. His rose-tinted glasses show enough of the eyes to reveal the crow’s feet. And he is handsome in the way people think film stars should be. Amongst the dusty and khaki-clad men in Boggel’s Place, this guy stands out like a diamond o a black board.
“Beer?” A good barman will always look after your thirst before asking questions.
“No. I don’t drink.” The other customers in the bar nod – they knew this man isn’t normal.
“Well, what I can do for you then?” If he doesn’t want to drink, he must be lost.
“I need to hire this venue for a day – and a night. Poker championship. International. We pay well.”
Boggel shakes his head. “If I hire this place out, the townsfolk have nowhere to meet – or drink something. I’m afraid…”
“Ten thousand bucks,” the man interrupts him. “The thousand for one day. US dollars.”
Several low whistles echo around the room. Eighty-thousand Rands! For one day? Surely…?
“Boggel leans over the counter after getting onto his crate. “Why?”
“Well, it’s like I told you. Poker. I represent some of the richest men in the world. They meet four times a year, alternating absolute luxury – like the Bahamas – with places completely in the bundu – like here. They fly in, play for big stakes, and then fly out again. It’s about the atmosphere, see? For this tournament they want a place in the desert, far from civilisation, and with plenty of cold beer. They don’t like lodges and they hate hotels. My job is to look for a place in South Africa that fits their wishes. They want to dress up like cowboys.”
“Oh no!” Lucinda gets up and marches to the man. “This is another lion story, no? You make fun of me again? Tell me!”
Of course he has no idea what she’s talking about. “No, madam, I’m serious.” He takes out a fat sheaf of notes and places in on the counter.
“Take it,” Vetfaan shouts, “take the money! We can set up a bar in Precilla’s shop for one day, and these guys can play their poker here. It’s a good deal.”
People seldom hear about these strange happenings in the rural areas. The big news corporations follow the TV crews from strike to unrest, from war to upheaval; feeding the sensation-hungry masses on as much gore, lies and deceit, financial and natural disasters all over the world, as they can muster. Most news hounds haven’t even heard of Rolbos – go on, ask a few and see the reaction. So, it is hardly surprising that four of the richest men in the world – one Chinese, one Englishman, one American and the obligatory Arabian gentleman – never reach the hallowed pages of print when they play their friendly game in Rolbos. At stake is only a few million; a paltry sum for these men; for they come here to escape and enjoy themselves. They are very careful to keep under the media-radar – even the helicopter flight that touches down next to Sammie’s Shop doesn’t appear on any register.
And fun they did have! First they had a ‘showdown’ in Voortrekker Weg, with fake pistols and blanks, then they sauntered in cowboy-style into Boggel’s Place and waited for the barman to fill their glasses. Gertruida, who has seen all the Clint Eastwood movies, tells the rest the men are dressed like real cowboys, and that the leather protectors on their legs aren’t a new fashion statement.
Boggel is the only local resident allowed behind the counter, and the nattily-dressed hunk does the serving. It is all very civilised and Boggel will later say he didn’t understand these men. They could have retired to any old club or retreat anywhere in the world, but they chose to land up in Rolbos. Gertruida will say that is the point – these men get bored, and unless they do way-out things, they get grumpy and the world economy suffers.
“Men like those,” she says, “are able to push the world’s finances this way and that – and sometimes they do it for fun. But always, always, they benefit. If the Dollar plunges, they buy. If oil goes up, they sell. Money begets money, guys; people like these gentlemen can make or break countries.”
Of course they all nod and say ‘yes’, but the concept is just too large to understand. Farmers work with ground and with sheep – important things – and have difficulty to grasp the intricacies of cellphone giants, quantum technologists and billionaires. They correctly place those under the heading of Not Important, simply because such people care little about the little men on the street. Surely: if someone isn’t concerned about you, you shouldn’t be bothered by them? It’s logic, according to Vetfaan.
At nine that night, the Chinese gentleman stares at his cards in disbelief. Four Aces! In his entire poker career, this has never happened to him. The bidding opens, and it is soon clear that every one of them had a special hand. Brit has a full house, Uncle Sam holds with a straight and the turbaned man is happy with his flush, king high. Like peace on earth, this combination of hands is virtually impossible, but it happens, right there in Boggel’s Place.
Soon the stakes are sky-high and they all have all their chips on the table. The trillionaires look on in disbelief as one hand after the other is revealed; and when Mr Ho puts down his cards, a few seconds of complete silence follows. Then laughter – incredulous at first –trickles across the table, but soon they are laughing and slapping each other on the back. It’s been years since they had such a lot of fun.
Their day of fun is over. They’ve all get back to their private jets and plush offices manned by skimpily-dressed aides the next day; something that puts a damper on their high spirits. Mr Ho is keen for another hand, although the rules of their game state that as soon as one player cleaned out the rest, that player buys a round of drinks and they call it quits. Rich people are careful with money, Gertruida says. Yet, in the flush of his victory, Mr Ho pleads for another game. Just one more. The other three, by then convinced of their opponent’s run of luck, politely refuse.
“Ha! Mister Balman! You like play hand with me? I play you for this bah. What you say?”
Boggel was completely taken aback. His bar? “T-t-that’s all I have!”
“Okay. I undelstand. So we play faih. You put evelything on, I put evelything on. Faih game. No cheat.”
To Ho and his pals, this is just a game. If Ho lost a fortune, he’d simply start buying some commodity (gold, platinum, oil) and increase the demand on a product in short supply. The price then goes up, Ho sells, and billions flow his way once again. Easy. The four of them egg Boggel on, taunting him, making him wonder if he has the guts.
To their surprise, Boggel pulls over his crate. “Right. Lets play. Only one hand.”
When Gertruida later asks him why he agreed, Boggel tells her that a fifty-fifty chance represent good odds. On one single hand he had a chance of becoming richer than the Oppenheimers. If he lost, he’ simply have to start Boggel’s Place next door – even if it’s a tent. According to his thinking, the Chinese man made a very bad decision however: if he lost, he’d lose big. And if he won, Boggel says, who would support the bar if Mr Ho ran it? No, he wasn’t worried: his patrons would follow him.
My Movie Star deals and Mr Ho snatches up his five cards. He sits back, his emotionless face giving away nothing.
Boggel don’t touch his cards. Leering over at his opponent, he growls: “Ye-e-e-es?”
They still talk about that game. The Chinese gentleman asked what Boggel would like to put on the table. Boggel said “Everything,” without looking at his cards. Ho said this is not the way the game is played. Boggel replied that wasn’t his problem – did the gentleman want to play or not?
“So he left, Boggel?” Gertruida can’t believe what she is hearing. “Left, and said he wouldn’t play with amateurs?”
And Boggel smiles and said yes, that’s exactly what happened.
“So, after he left, did you peek at your cards? What did you have?”
Boggel shakes his head.
“No, he chickened out; that was enough. I shuffled those cards right back into the deck, and gave it back to Mr Movie Man.”
Gertruida says that’s the way you should run a country. Don’t kill your opponents – just allow them the opportunity to doubt. That’s a death worse than dying. They don’t have to know what winning (or not) hand you’ve got. What counts is that they must think they can’t match you. That, she says, is like the battle between Zuma and Malema, or Obama and Romney. Here, too, one will have to throw in his hand and walk away like Mr Ho did. The only difference is that the loser will really lose everything.
Boggel agrees, sting the trick is never to take yourself too seriously. That’s when you lose to amateurs. Politicians do it all the time, he says – and not only in South Africa. All you need, he says, is faith…