“We got the go-ahead, we’re in. Two tickets only. Somewhere in the US, they said they’d provide details. You’ll go yourself I presume. And Suleiman has agreed to play?”
“Yes, I’ll tell him right away.”
“Make sure he stays focused. The spot is pretty remote so there’ll be no distractions there, but keep an eye on him until you leave Kabul.”
“It’s in two days. I’ve sent over the official invitation; take it with you. And please remember that we cannot screw this up.”
Farid threw down the phone and picked up another.
“Suleiman, the game is on. We’re leaving for the US in two days and we need you to be at your best. Where are you?”
A wheezy voice replied from the other end, so smoky that Farid could almost taste the shisha. “Ah, good. Since you ask, I’m feeling especially lucky at the moment. I’m in Dubai, doing the Krueger contract. Just won a tidy sum from some Russian mobsters on Kish.”
“The Krueger?” A pause.
“Yes, just needs a few things to finish it off.”
“OK. But come back today. I want you where I can see you until the game is done.”
“There was one favour I wanted to ask you…”
“Those safes? Yes, I sorted it. Get back today.”
Farid looked out at the arid hills surrounding the city. He couldn’t wait to get out: he hated driving on its roads, and the government was going to fall soon, everyone knew. Now that the game was fixed he would book his family onto a flight for later in the week, and follow them once everything was settled. This was going to be his last flutter with the Khan Brothers, he had decided. On reflection the four-to-one odds seemed good – hadn’t he seen far worse before and come out on top? Yes, he assured himself, the scheme was destined to work. Suleiman was a card genius, and he would live comfortably but modestly abroad, perhaps find a less stressful job in another bank to keep himself busy.
The phone rang again. A helicopter full of foreign currency had arrived ahead of schedule and needed somewhere to land. There were so many comings and goings these days. So many more names and bank codes to remember, and life seemed so untidy, so bulky with so many suitcases and sports bags lying around as people preferred to deal in cash. For the best part of the last six months he had been aggressively collecting funds to get Suleiman into this game; taking his well-worn spiel on the benefits of banking with a modern institution like Khan Brothers to every corner of the country, collecting bundles of torn and dirty notes, sometimes even coins. The whole process had been distasteful. Dealing in cash, and so directly with customers, seemed crude somehow. What had kept him going was the knowledge that when the scheme paid off and people saw the windfalls a new modern finance system could bring, his bank, Khan Brothers, would be remembered as the pioneers.
He told the pilot to make for the mayor’s helipad and that he would call the mayor later to explain, and jotted down some figures in a notepad. The collection was finished. He took a deep breath. All that remained now was to play the game. He went out for a cigarette.
Farid looked out at the arid hills surrounding the city. He couldn’t wait to get out: he hated driving on its roads, and the government was going to fall soon, everyone knew.
The office was frantic when he came back. Another cargo of safes had turned up. He made the necessary arrangements and was contemplating another cigarette when a peon approached and handed over a slate-coloured envelope. Inside was an invitation from ‘Get Out Quick, Inc.’ to ‘The Mt Jackson Ponzi – the last ticket off the sinking ship’. Mt Jackson was in the middle of the US, according to a map on the card, and a sentence at the bottom in smaller type informed that discrete transportation to and from the venue was provided.
In the taxi to the airport Farid started to say something and fumbled his words. Trying again, he asked in a nervous voice: “Suleiman, I know this company is certainly not legal. But how dislegal is it?”
“Farid, you need to travel more and speak real English. The word is ‘illegal’. And they are, very. Most of the players I know won’t go near them. There was a game here once, in some district-or-other. Wiped out the local economy.”
“And this is who we’re trusting to get us out of Kabul?”
“It will be fine. It’s me playing, remember? You have to put in a lot, sure, but that’s how things work in our business. The game itself is completely legitimate, and the rules are not decided until the four players meet and one of them chooses from a world almanac of gambling games. And you know what I’m like with card games – a master of them all: Sete e Meio, Vinte e Um and Lerpa when I’m in Angola, Tarneeb when I’m in Beirut; Truco when I am being wild in Venezuela, Clobyosh when I am being respectable with my Jewish friends on the Upper East Side. Do I need to remind you of Justice Spinks III of Las Vegas, who recommended that I be banned not just from the casinos of the city, but from the whole state? No. So please, Farid, don’t worry so much.”
The plane dropped out of the sky as if in response to a sudden change in atmospheric pressure. Farid’s stomach dropped at a similar rate. After a bumpy landing the passengers were led towards a hanger, where a soldier handed them tea from a samovar. A tall, thin man in a long coat approached. He had a hard, pale face, and gloves that squelched and stank of Vaseline when he shook their hands.
“I’m Mr White,” he said.
“We are to play here?” asked Suleiman.
“Yes, I’m afraid so. It’s not Monte Carlo, obviously; we took rather a hit during the financial crisis and are running a skeleton set-up for now. But not to worry. I’m sure the game will be the start of a comeback, and we will of course remember you when times get better. But we are here to play poker, gentlemen, not to idle, and you can be assured that the cards and chips are of the finest quality and are absolutely cheat-proof. Come. I’ll show you to your lodgings.”
After depositing their bags in a dilapidated caravan, Mr White led them to his office, which was in a small shed apart from the main warehouses. The walls were covered with maps and some copies of Harper’s were the sole occupants of a rickety bookshelf. On a desk was a red telephone. “The only way to communicate with the outside world, gentlemen, is through this remarkable telephone here,” said Mr White. “I alone have the authority to use it and I would advise you to remember this. Those at the other end do not take kindly to receiving calls from just anyone. You will be required to remain at the table until the sport is concluded and I have telephoned through the results. You are also forbidden from interacting with any of the spectators while the game is in progress.”
“What spectators?” asked Farid.
“There are spectators here, Mr Khan, for the game. A perfectly well-behaved crowd of diplomats, bankers and economists who will not in the least distract your partner from his cards. The game you are about to play will have quite some repercussions around the globe, as I’m sure you are aware, and these people would very much like to be as close to the action as possible. Now, if you could sign these release forms, I’ll send some refreshments along to your room. I must go and meet our other guests. We shall commence at sundown.”
After caviar had been delivered to their room, Farid and Suleiman saw no one else. They went for a walk in search of phone signal, then returned to the gloomy interior of the caravan where they practiced card tricks for the rest of the afternoon. Even though he was not the one playing, Farid was nervous and twitchy, and kept breaking Suleiman’s concentration by getting up to go to the toilet. As the shadows began to lengthen outside they were collected by a man in military uniform and taken to the largest of the buildings, without windows and draped with camouflage nets. Drinks were served in a small sitting-room and the assembled players were introduced to each other by Mr White.
“This is Mr Francois Jawara of the Bank of North Guinea, recently named the continent’s ‘most extracting bank’, who is doing very well in diamonds.” Jawara inclined his head and turned to the figure at his left, a wrinkled prune of a man with wispy red hair and a protruding upper lip. “Mr MacTavish, of MacTavish and Daughters, Edinburgh. Or ‘the Spartan Tartan bank’ as we like to call it. Famous for its Calvinist work ethic and measly interest rates, and currently riding high on oil money and the good times of the North Sea Bubble, as it were.” Mr White chuckled at his own joke. “And Mr Khan, from Khan Brothers of Kabul, representing his institution for the first time in a game like this. Welcome. We read with interest the way you utilised a banking and media boom, and an influx of overseas aid, to secure your buy-in.”
At this, the fourth man, a florid, mop-haired cowboy, spoke out: “Yeah, what was that scam called? It was impressive. I looked you up. The ‘baksheesh’ account wasn’t it? And people just put the money right in? With that name? Some people just never learn, am I right? My name’s Vincent Crain, I’m the Texan here.”
Mr White continued: “Gentleman, we are in the United States and therefore Mr Crain is the home player and will select the rules of the game we are to play. From the almanac, please pick one sir.”
“Oh I don’t need an almanac,” Summers replied. “It’s got to be poker.”
Suleiman’s heart sank. He would have preferred to play something quicker, like Albanian Xing, or a game that used the 40-card Spanish deck like Rocambor, which he had perfected during his exile in Bolivia. Poker was for dull, ponderous Yankees who did not possess the intelligence or patience for chess, and could not count quickly enough to be successful in the quickfire card games of the bazaars and roadsides of the world. He felt like he had been deprived of a treat.
“Now we are familiar with each other,” Mr White continued, “let me congratulate you all for being here. Your banking houses have all passed the most strict and vigorous tests and proven themselves robust and flexible enough for a game such as this. You will, of course, excuse the less-than-desirable setting; presently we have neither the financial nor legal means to advertise our presence here. But if you are all ready, we shall proceed to the table. Your seconds will be seated in the stalls with our paying guests.”
At the bottom of a flight of stairs a door was opened; the players saw the card table for the first time. It was set in the middle of what looked like an animal-fighting pit. Each chair was fixed to a chain bolted to the inside wall. Sawdust and scraps of feather littered the floor, and the red telephone stood on a high table in a corner. One halogen light was fixed to the ceiling, its beam illuminating the table and nothing else. The edges of the room were lit by a blue light which shimmered as if reflecting the water of an underground pool.
He would have preferred to play something quicker, like Albanian Xing, or a game that used the 40-card Spanish deck like Rocambor, which he had perfected during his exile in Bolivia.
A weapons search was conducted before the players were allowed to enter the pit. Suleiman was divested of his pulwar, Mr MacTavish handed over a skean dhu from his sock, and Francois Jawara was eventually persuaded to give up a stiff sheet of off-white card with folding lines criss-crossing it, which turned out to be a printable pistol with an assembly time of seven seconds. “From America,” he grinned over at the Texan.
The stalls were beginning to fill up with pale figures that floated around like ghosts, whispering to each other but never taking their eyes off the table and the nervous movements of the four players. “Gentlemen, please be seated. We will begin shortly,” said Mr White. The murmuring in the stalls died away; Suleiman took his chair next to the Texan and saw Farid sit beside an assistant from MacTavish and Daughters. A hush descended. Mr White was the last to be seated, and he took the dealer’s chair. Removing his gloves, he revealed a set of buttermilk hands, soft like silk, and smooth like fresh snow on a lawn.
The first few rounds were quick and nervy as each of the players tried to get the measure of one another. The four were evenly matched. Suleiman lost a small fortune in the first round but then made up for it spectacularly in the second with some inspired bluffing.
How long had he been playing? He was having trouble remembering what cards he held, and the other players looked as sluggish as he felt.
Suddenly the halogen lamp snapped from its chain and crashed down onto the table, where it broke into two. Suleiman and Mr MacTavish jumped back and swore. Mr White seemed not to have noticed the crash and carried on shuffling for the next round. As he dealt, the light emanating from the walls grew slowly brighter, highlighting the faces of the players in a blue hue. A boy came and cleared away the pieces of the lamp and Mr White asked him to bring some cigars. “They are absolutely the finest,” he said when the boy returned. “A souvenir from the last game in Cuba.” He handed them round; the other players waited until he had lit up and emitted several smoke rings before smoking themselves. He noticed this and laughed, bent back to his cards, his face still deathly pale in the blue glow.
Suleiman looked through the smoke. How long had he been playing? He was having trouble remembering what cards he held, and the other players looked as sluggish as he felt. With an effort he concentrated long enough to wonder where all the chips had gone if they were all playing so badly. The other players had noticed their drowsiness too, and were beginning to look agitated.
“Can someone turn this light down?” asked the Texan. “It’s getting to my head. I feel slow.”
“The light is fine, thank you,” said Mr White. “And before you ask me why you can’t get out of your chair, Mr MacTavish,” he said, turning suddenly to the man squirming in his seat, his tone now harsh, guttural and savage, “it’s because, as I have made clear to you already, you will not be leaving your seat until the game is finished.” The silence that followed this pronouncement was deathly. Under the gaze of the dealer, Mr MacTavish looked up and muttered something, before crossing himself and facing the table in resignation.
“Gentlemen, I think it is time now to step things up a bit. Poker is a dying game; dealers like me see too little valour, too little risk-taking these days. Too many evasions, dodges and frauds, and we’re sick of it. We want to see the raw, straight-up greed come to the surface and bake in the sun. That’s why you’re here, gentlemen. Ponzi scheme or poker game, what’s the difference? Bluffing, lying and scamming – you are past masters of these arts and believe me, we are honoured to have you performing for us here today. This is ponzi gentlemen, the main event, the big deal. It’s the hot ticket to a beautiful cocktail of untruth and deception; the most intoxicating, complicated and powerful web of calculations and speculations that man has yet come up with. It will make you rich, gentlemen, which is why there can be only one winner. I myself believe that in a contest for such a magnificent prize there should be daring and bravery; you are after all warriors, are you not? A soundtrack for the action then, to inspire you to play some good, brave poker! Boy! Play the Battle of Gettysburg!”
A thundering roar of cannon exploded into the room and only the strange spell Mr White had worked kept the players in their seats. The sounds of bugles and horses and the crackle of rifle fire filled the room, and the air around the table became thick with whistle blasts and shouts of pain, which grew louder as the invisible armies drew closer together. Mr MacTavish won the round comfortably; he alone seemed to be able to concentrate, although he drank from his hipflask six times. He offered Suleiman a swig. It was single malt, and tasted horrible.
Two or three, or five or six rounds passed, and Suleiman could barely focus on the cards he had in his hand, let alone speculate on what his opponents were holding. A series of Pacific Island war dances were followed by a long Wagner opera in reverse, and finally, after several recordings of the sound barrier being broken, the lights dimmed and silence returned. The four kept on playing. The air became heavy and sweet, the figures on the cards changed their shapes and donned death masks and leered up at the players when they were turned over. Suleiman had managed to string together a coherent round to claw back some of his chips, but as he turned his final card over to reveal his winning hand, something hot and sharp pierced his arm at the shoulder. He felt for his arm and there was no wound, although a dull pain remained and he winced as he collected his winnings. This happened twice more as Suleiman won the next two rounds, and he slumped, trapped and defeated in his seat. Still wincing from the pain, he exited the next round early to lick his wounds and regroup. The Texan stepped up and swept all before him, and at the moment he revealed his winning card, a loud crack came from somewhere about his face. His nose flattened and broke, and the blood streamed down to stain the royal flush lying on the table. The scent in the air was now soft and pleasant, but the four players sat paralysed and terror-stricken, unwilling now to reach out and play for the prize that was in front of them. The chips dwindled away in the haze; to where, no one saw, but Mr White’s soft hands were always busy.
His voice awoke Suleiman from his semi-consciousness. “Gentlemen, you are out of chips. Here would be what is called rock bottom. However, loosen your neckties and prepare to play for real. Now comes an opportunity, a door, a vista out onto the open landscapes of speculation of the tallest degree, into which you can choose to enter as pioneers! This is a new age, my friends, one where time itself drips with money. Speculate and profit in the future hidden to the halfwits who didn’t make it here tonight! We can make it happen gentlemen, we have the vision. Do you?”
Suleiman looked around. No-one had any chips left. Suddenly Mr White’s voice whispered in his ear: “Remember. It’s poker. It only matters that you don’t have what you say you have if you lose. They can’t see what you’ve got, believe me. The ponzi must be played till it ends, and until it does, you know you cannot stop posting higher profits. You need to take something back to Kabul and your newly acquired shareholders for it to keep working. You still have assets. Put what your bank has on the table.”
Out in the stalls Farid was half asleep. Though only ten metres away, the poker table and the five figures around it had been covered in shadow for the past seven hours, and he had been slumbering, his tired brain constantly piecing fragments of the excited foreign speech around him into nonsense in his own language. He woke up hearing someone next to him say excitedly to his colleague: “They’ve all agreed. They’ll go for a second game – everything on the table. Now things will get interesting.” The stalls became lively and some called for more notepads and calculators. A large flat screen descended from the roof and displayed each player’s score and the commodities they were now gambling with.
Ponzi scheme or poker game, what’s the difference? Bluffing, lying and scamming – you are past masters of these arts and believe me, we are honoured to have you performing for us here today.
At the table Suleiman looked up as the clamour in the stands increased. He couldn’t see Farid and concentrated instead on his scorecard. The new game picked up quick and fast. He lost a conglomerate of ostrich farms in Australia, the fishing rights over a large section of the Norwegian Sea, and a 13.5 percent stake in a proposed Russian pipeline to the Texan, who was getting bolder and crowed loudly when he won, his broken nose distorting his voice horribly. In the stalls the observers seemed transfixed by the figures being updated on the screen, and only averted their gaze at the end of each round to exchange nods and coded hand signals. They seemed oblivious to the huge amounts of wealth being traded and did not flinch when the speculations began to go further and further into the future.
The Texan and Suleiman were the only remaining players. Mr MacTavish and Francois Jawara watched numb and mute from their chairs as Suleiman got more desperate and put the bank’s darkest secrets on the table: the smuggling routes and truck fleets and mining concessions in Antarctica. But to no avail; the Texan seemed to hold all of the right cards. In his last hand Suleiman bet the Khan Brothers headquarters, as well as some surrounding infrastructure he was not sure the company owned, and when the Texan won, he threw down his cards in anger and dismay. The eerie blue light faded, the cards disappeared and without speaking a word Mr White got up to make the telephone call. The Texan stared round the table, spent and unsteady, but with light shining from his eyes. “Well, whaddya know? Must’ve been the home advantage. Been great playing with you fellas.”
The players left the pit one by one, exhausted and despondent, and ignored completely by the speculators who congratulated each other, rubbing their hands. Farid made straight for Mr MacTavish and haggled hard for the remainder of his hip flask. He was very white and wanted to get drunk quietly somewhere to take in what had happened.
Boarding the plane Suleiman finally broke his silence. “Well, we should have expected that, at least partly. I didn’t have a chance against that Texan, not here.” And with this he pulled out a sleeping mask and went to sleep. Suleiman thought only of the bailiffs who would soon come to appropriate his office and everything in it, and the look on his wife’s face when he broke the news that they were destitute. The whisky was strong and no stewardess appeared with mixers.
They landed in a cargo terminal some miles outside of Kabul. Both wore blue stubble and haggard faces. Farid’s eyes were bloodshot. “What do we do now? We’ve lost everything. Khan Brothers may as well be made of paper.”
“It always was,” said Suleiman, finishing the last of the whisky. “Come on, back to the cash economy – straightforward and honest like I always told you. Remember those safes that kept arriving? That was the backup plan. You always have to have one when dealing with invisible money. People here will never trust a bank again, and we now happen to be the most well-stocked safe salesmen in the country. It’s a boon. And there’s no time to lose. This is the first step towards something big my friend. In two months you will be in Switzerland, I guarantee it.”
With this, Suleiman strode off towards the distant city, barking orders into his mobile phone and readying himself for the hustle of the bazaar. Farid looked down at his feet and was violently sick.
Ross Adkin is an Assistant Editor at this magazine.