SOLOMON HAD IT EASIER : NUMBER TWO
It was the second week of May, with the first test match only a month away. The initial neighbourhood spring attack on gardens and house exteriors had been carried out and the toilers had temporarily retreated to nurse their ailments. They would soon be at it again, but the respite pleased Judge Embert Wimple, who had survived yet another winter and for a man well past eighty was as sprightly as could be expected.
Mrs Wimple, who had taken up oil painting, was away from base, having sought kindred souls in St Ives. She was in high spirits, having sold her latest canvas for £80, a quantum leap from the £25 each she had received for her first three efforts, offered al fresco at a local shopping precinct. Her absence left the judge to cope with the housekeeper, a position that formerly would have been tiresome. However, during his wife’s last jaunt, Embert Wimple had taken issue with the domestic dragon, reminding her of who paid the bills. As a result of the encounter, the two had reached an understanding that had previously eluded them.
There was no let-up in the judge’s court schedule. Considering the demands on his services, he might almost have continued in full-time employment. He had intended to enjoy his day’s work, but noted that he was dealing with another matter concerning what seemed to be domestic violence. Usually, these affairs were sordid and uninteresting, but Judge Wimple lived in hope that one of the few meaty ones might turn up at some point. The case was Bakewell versus Stafford, the allegation being that the defendant was guilty of physical violence and was responsible for consequent mental distress. Appearing for the plaintiff, Brenda Bakewell, was the veteran William Weatherley, acting in what would prove to be his last case before retirement. The defendant, Anthony Stafford, had engaged one of the few local female barristers, Arabella Bray, who was making her first appearance before Judge Wimple.
Having ingested what was necessary, the judge took a moment to look at the litigants. The plaintiff was a tall bulky tough-looking woman, dressed in blue jeans, a matching denim jacket and a mid-grey pullover. A large bunch of keys dangled from her right hip. The defendant was a small, dapper-looking, moustachioed and goatee-bearded man, wearing a smart navy-blue suit, white shirt and what looked like a regimental tie. His honour, who was disposed to maintain a light touch, addressed the learned Weatherley. “Time to get ball rolling, Mr Weathervane.”
Prosecuting counsel was not in the least discommoded. “Thank you, Your Honour. The incident with which we are concerned occurred in my client’s house on the twenty-fourth of January this year. Perhaps it would be helpful if I were to state that my client, Mrs Bakewell, had earlier been married for nine years to the defendant. Notwithstanding the matrimonial breakdown and Mrs Bakewell’s subsequent second marriage, the two parties here were in frequent contact. Mr Stafford was in the habit of visiting the Bakewells each Saturday evening to play cards. On the occasion in question, two other gentlemen had also been invited, so there were five players. The game was standard draw poker. Here, I would request indulgence, as a description of the game might be helpful.”
The judge nodded. “By all means. We may sometimes have too little information, but cannot have too much. Please proceed.”
“Your Honour is most gracious. We speak of a game of combined skill and chance, in which five cards are distributed face down to each participant, the dealer included. Players are allowed to keep their original cards, or if they so wish, to discard any or all of them. As the game proceeds, bets are made into a central pool, on an increasing scale, the wagers normally, though not necessarily, representing the strength of the various hands. Some players may wish to drop out, either initially, or as betting continues. For example, where five players are concerned, which as I have said was the case on the occasion we are considering, it is not unusual for only two players to remain at the end, both convinced that they have the superior hand, or that they can bluff the opponent into thinking so.”
“And bluffing is legitimate, is it?”
“Yes. I believe many a game has been won that way. As to ranking, there is the totally nondescript hand, on which, generally speaking, no player would make a bet. Then there is a progression. First, a pair, that is two cards of the same value, for example two threes. Then two pairs . . .”
“Dead man’s hand,” said the judge.
“Your Honour?” Weatherley queried.
The judge’s eyes twinkled. “I know very little of poker, Mr Westerman, but I believe that the late Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back in a Deadwood City saloon, while holding a hand of two pairs. I think there was some question as to whether he had eights and aces, or eights and jacks. No doubt someone will make a lifetime’s study of this, if that has not already been done. However, I fear I halted your discourse. Please go on.”
“I am obliged to Your Honour for the information. I was about to say that the ranking proceeds to three of a kind, which is three cards of the same value. After that, there is the straight, which means five cards of consecutive values, irrespective of suit. Then a flush, which is five cards of the same suit, irrespective of values. Beyond these, there is a full house, which is three cards of the same value, plus a pair of another value. Then there is four of a kind, which means four cards of the same value. Finally, outranking all others, there is the straight flush, which means five cards of the same suit, in consecutive values. It follows that the best hand is the highest straight flush, called a royal flush, headed by an ace. Thus, a royal flush is ace, king, queen, jack and ten of the same suit.”
The judge nodded. “I understand. Presumably the hands are in accordance with calculated odds?”
“Exactly, Your Honour. This was the catalyst in the case here. The chances of improving a given hand are known, but are of no relevance to us. The important point is the one relating to the initial distribution. Now, the chances against any player receiving five specific cards, for example a royal flush in spades, from a pack of fifty-two are over two-and-a-half million to one. Obviously, any player hopes to get such a hand. Since there are four suits, the odds fall accordingly, but are still nearly six hundred and fifty thousand to one against. In this case, there had been the usual rounds of discarding and bidding.
“My client had initially been dealt two pairs and had improved her hand to a full house. She reasonably supposed that she would win the pot, as only four of a kind or a straight flush would prevail over her cards. The other three players had dropped out, leaving only Mrs Bakewell and the defendant, who was also the dealer at the time in question. My client recalled that Mr Stafford had kept his original cards. In the . . . er . . . final showdown, it turned out that Mr Stafford had a royal flush and won the pot. Mrs Bakewell was staggered at this outcome, reasoning that it was unthinkable that the defendant had legitimately dealt himself a hand which so confounded the odds. She recalled from their marriage that Mr Stafford had spent much time studying card play and –”
“Erdnase wasn’t in it.” This came from the plaintiff. Weatherley turned to suppress her outburst, but she had no further observations.
“Erdnase,” said the judge. “What is that?”
“Not a what, Your Honour, a who,” Weatherly replied. S. W. Erdnase produced a book in, I understand, 1902. The author’s true identity is not known, though it is often supposed that he was a certain E. S. Andrews, well known at the time for his dexterity with cards. It was, and perhaps still is, believed by some people that he wrote under a pseudonym, as the writer’s initials and name are simply the letters of E. S. Andrews in reverse order. The volume concerned has long been regarded as a textbook on card manipulation. Mrs Bakewell had noted during her marriage to the defendant that he had a copy of the book, to which he referred frequently. She had suspected that her husband cheated at poker but until the evening we are discussing, had never caught him out.”
“And on that occasion she did?”
“Such is her contention, Your Honour. In her view it was unbelievable that a player could deal himself a royal flush by fair means. It was tantamount to stealing the pot.”
“And what was the amount involved?”
“The stakes were modest, as is usual in these friendly games. The total was just over four pounds.”
“Hmn. Not likely to excite anyone in Las Vegas. Carry on.”
“A fierce disagreement broke out, which was ended when the defendant attacked my client, striking her a vicious blow to the forehead.”
“Resorted to fisticuffs, did he?”
“No, Your Honour. He hit her with a melon.”
“My goodness. Well, since it does not normally have edges, I suppose a melon would qualify as the proverbial blunt instrument, though it may not be the first one to come to the mind of a would-be assailant.”
“One might say that it came to hand as much as to mind. It was in a bowl on the nearby sideboard.”
“I see. Was it a honeydew, a cantaloupe, or a watermelon? I think we should know.”
Weatherley overcame his bafflement, muttering with his client. “It was a honeydew melon, Your Honour. In fact, Mrs Bakewell had been so struck . . . beg pardon . . . impressed by the item that she had earlier weighed it, finding that it scaled over five pounds.”
“Indeed,” said the judge. “A fearsome weapon if skilfully handled.” He was recalling an incident during his RAF service, when a medicine ball had flattened him while he was distracted by a butterfly during a physical training exercise.
“Quite so. Mrs Bakewell fell, the back of her head hitting a door. She was shocked, disorientated, almost certainly concussed and I hardly need say, greatly distressed. She has a particularly delicate constitution.”
“I understand,” said the judge. He glanced at the litigants, noting the defendant’s diminutive stature and comparing it with that of the five-foot-ten, fourteen-stone plaintiff, whose face might have been hewn from granite. Delicate?
“Thank you, Mr Weathercock. I think we should now hear what the defence has to say. Ms Gray?”
A close one. Arabella Bray, who had been briefed about the judge’s attitude to names, was pleased. Was it gentlemanly deference? “May it please Your Honour, we have heard of my client’s supposed misdeeds. With regard to one of them, he was at fault and I shall return to that. As to the matter of his defeating phenomenal odds in the game, he did so and that was all there was to it. We might invoke the adage that if one is unlucky in love, one may well be lucky at cards. Perhaps Mr Stafford exemplifies this, since his marriage was terminated. He makes no apology – nor should he – for the fact that fortune smiled on him at the poker table. We submit that no explanation is necessary.”
“Very well, Ms Straikes,” Bray wondered where that one came from, “I imagine you have further comments?”
“Yes, Your Honour. I think it was Rochefoucauld who said that arguments would not last long if the fault were on only one side. This is a case in point. It is true that my client assaulted the plaintiff with a melon. However, the prosecution said nothing about the provocation, which was extreme and, but for Mr Stafford’s sense of chivalry, would have led to a counter-charge.”
The judge reproved himself for thinking that he had been called upon to deal with a mundane matter. It was really quite interesting. “What was the nature of this provocation?” he asked.
“Fiery, Your Honour. When the outcome of the game was known, there was a heated exchange between the two parties. Having, as she saw it, been bested verbally, the plaintiff rushed into the kitchen. A moment later she returned, carrying a box of matches and a can of lighter fluid. She sprayed the liquid onto my client’s beard, then ignited it. I am sure I need not comment on the ensuing distress, save to say that the potentially life-threatening predicament was alleviated when one of the parties present emptied a can of lager over Mr Stafford’s face, extinguishing the flames. It was only then that my client retaliated in the way described by my learned colleague. This is the basis for our submission, which is that all would have been well, but for the plaintiff’s unreasonable behaviour.”
“Thank you, Ms Patel.” Patel? The judge may well have been on form, but he was certainly off-colour. In fact, his mind had drifted to a local cricket match he had heard of, in which half the players had borne the name he had in mind. Hard work for the scorers, Embert Wimple had thought. “Now, if that is all, I need to retire, as there are enquiries to be made.” This was usually a bad sign for someone. “We shall reconvene at two-thirty.”
When the parties reassembled, the judge was in jovial mood. He offered a slight nod and a smile of matching wattage to all present, before delivering his verdict. “During the recess, I have checked that the odds in poker are as stated this morning. I am satisfied that the respective arguments have been clearly presented. I am also persuaded that this is yet another matter which could have been settled by sensible discussion – and I wonder why this obvious course is not taken more often. I must say that I never before heard of an assault by melon, or any other fruit or vegetable. As to the attack upon the defendant, I had thought that such things had died out with Sir Francis Drake, who, albeit allegorically, singed the King of Spain’s beard four centuries ago. As to Mr Stafford’s defeating such long odds, we shall never know, but I recall the no doubt fancifully named ‘law’, elucidated I believe by a Scotsman, under which the apparent million-to-one chance occurs with baffling frequency. It is the sort of thing one encounters when, say, walking along a country lane. One may do so for an hour without hindrance, but when one wishes to cross a narrow bridge, two large vehicles appear from opposite directions at the same instant. In this case, I find it impossible to favour either party, so am bound to dismiss the charge. Proceedings concluded.”
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