“Go on, my son! Giddee up!”
Mickey is at the horse races. He is holding a scrap of paper in one hand and his hopes and dreams in the other.
“Go on, Tinker’s Boy!” he shouts, as half a dozen nags gallop around the course.
The Devil appears at his elbow, dressed as a country gent in tweeds, polished brogues and an expensive beard.
“And what do you think you are doing, Mickey?” asks the Naughty One.
“You must have heard of gambling, mister Devil,” says Mickey. “Don’t they have ‘orses and ‘ounds in the Underworld?”
“Of course I know about gambling. It’s the greatest con trick ever invented.”
Mickey sticks out an impudent little tongue. To be wholly accurate, he sticks out his only tongue impudently. He doesn’t have more than one tongue. Unlike the Devil, who has an extensive collection of tongues ripped from the mouths of politicians, liars, adulterers and encyclopaedia salesmen.
“Nah, you’re not going to fool me like that,” says Mickey. “I know gambling isn’t a con trick. The bookies do pay out when you win. This ain’t no pig what lays the golden eggs.”
“And how is Nigel?”
Mickey suddenly takes an interest in his shoes. “Um. Ah. He’s doing very well, thank you. But don’t change the subject. Gambling isn’t a con trick.”
“That’s what the angel thought,” said the Devil with a wicked leer. “Let me tell you the story…”
Once upon a time when the world was still in nappies, a novice angel and a trainee demon were casting dice on a mountain top.
You might think that this is a strange thing for an angel to do. But the truth is that the angels invented games of chance in order to teach mankind about honesty. The laws of probability are the fairest things in the Universe.
After several thousand years of casting dice, the angel and the demon were no closer to winning their game than when they started. A six came up roughly one sixth of the time. And the same for ones and twos and … you get the picture. If you play long enough, a fair game of chance with true dice will always be drawn.
“I wonder if there are better things we should be doing,” said the angel in tones as soft and sweet a lute symphony, wrapped in cotton wool, draped in silk and slathered with cream.
“Nah, let’s keeping going,” said the demon. “Another millennium. Or two.”
“I don’t know. A draw is a nice friendly result and there are souls to save.”
“Or to corrupt,” added the demon.
“If you must,” said the Angel with an angelic smile of somewhat misplaced tolerance. “I suggest we end our game. True gambling will always be a draw.”
This was it. This was the point when the fate of mankind hung in the balance, when destiny could tip one way or the other. If the angel and the demon had parted ways, mankind would never have known about gambling in all its different forms. The horse races. Lotteries. Casinos. Insurance. The stock market.
Insurance and the stock market? Oh yes. They are as much about gambling as the Grand National. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This is the moment when …
… a wonderfully evil idea occurred to the demon. An idea so naughty and corrupt that it made the blackest part of his already black heart a little blacker.
“I bet you I can make gambling into a win,” said the demon. “I can twist the laws of chance so that the game can be won or lost.”
The angel scoffed, scoffingly. And if you have never heard an angel scoff, believe me they are very good at it.
“Will you take the bet?” asked the demon interrupting the scoffing.
The angel paused to think about it. In deity time, this pause was no longer than a few seconds. Meanwhile on earth, a baby grew up to adulthood then aged and died during this self-same pause.
“What happened next?” asks Mickey, forgetting his interest in the horse race. “Did the angel take the bet?”
“Of course he did,” says the Devil. “No angel can resist a flutter, a gamble, a wager. They always want to prove that good is right.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
The Devil puts a fatherly arm around Mickey’s shoulders. “The demon spent many a sleepless aeon trying to solve the puzzle. If the laws of chance were immutably fair, how could he make gambling into a sure-fire win? How could he cheat the iron logic of the Universe?”
“Pah! Nothing is impossible for a demon. The dinosaurs came and went while he was figuring it out. But when he did work out the answer, his cry of victory shattered the fifth planet around the sun and so created the asteroid belt.”
Mickey smiles and nods like a village idiot. He is a medieval peasant and so understands very little about planets and asteroid belts. Then again, he doesn’t understand things like insurance or stock markets either, but he doesn’t want the devil to know that.
“Did he win the bet?” asks Mickey.
“Oh yes,” says the Devil. “Oh yes, yes, indeedy yes. The demon found a way to make gambling into a con trick.”
There was another of those pause things. Not quite so long as the last one, but an awkward silence nonetheless.
“Well?” asks Mickey. “Are you going to tell me?”
The Devil grins. “What have you got in your hand, Mickey?”
“It’s a betting slip. A penny on Tinker’s Boy at ten to 1.”
“And how much do you stand to win?”
Mickey points excitedly to the betting slip. “Aha! I know this one. I’m not so stupid as you thunks I am. The odds are ten to 1. If Tinker’s Boy comes first I get ten pennies plus my original penny back. That’s eleven lovely pennies to take Rosie to the barn dance this Saturday.”
There is the sound of thundering hooves as the racing horses gallop past them. Tinker’s Boy is in the middle of the pack with his jockey doing unspeakable things to his bottom with a whip.
“And what are the odds of Tinker’s Boy winning this race?” asks the Devil.
“Ten to one,” says Mickey with a tone that anticipates Homer Simpson’s “d’oh” by several hundred years.
“Nope,” says the Devil. “That’s what the bookie will pay you. It’s not the odds of Tinker’s Boy winning. And that’s the secret of gambling.”
“I don’t understand. If I win I get eleven pennies. That’s got to be good, right?”
“It’s a misdirection,” says the Devil. “That’s the beauty of the demon’s trick. The bookie makes you look only at what you might win. Ten pennies in return for a stake of just one. But the odds of Tinker’s Boy winning this race aren’t ten to one. He’s a tired old nag fit only for a pie. He hasn’t won a race in a decade, and that was against donkeys. The real odds of Tinker’s Boy are twenty to one.”
The race ends with a wheezing Tinker’s Boy coming stone last.
“That’s the trick with all gambling,” says the Devil. “The amount you stand to win is always less than the odds of winning. In the long run, the bookie always wins.”
Mickey rips up his betting slip. “I suppose the demon was suitably happy that he won the bet.”
The Devil buffs up his dark fingernails on his shirt front in a gesture of supreme smugness. “Indeed. It got me promoted from junior demon to head devil.”