Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Up in smoke

‘Life’s a bitch, Toti’ I say to my Egyptian friend, increasing my sofa-bound angle of recline to an almost horizontal aspect. ‘Indeed’, Toti agrees, a huge plume of strawberry-flavoured smoke rising from his mouth. The pipe between us issues forth its trade mark “hubble-bubble”.

He had earlier apologised for being a little late in replenishing my charcoal, but I waved his apology away as unnecessary. ‘Don’t worry,’ I said, ‘I have all the time in the world’. He ginned back at me. ‘Yes. I suppose you do.’

For the record I’m on holiday in Egypt, but it actually feels like I’m in Russia (well, a version of Russia where the entire bar staff is Egyptian and the weather is a lot better). I have no idea why Russians love Egypt so much, but they’re everywhere. Not that I particularly mind - the Russian girls are hardly hideous. However, I can’t help thinking that the part of a Russian girl’s brain in charge of telling her when she’s hot clearly malfunctions. Many have been blessed with super-fit bodies and model-esque faces, but have a habit of trudging around looking like they’ve just been told their home towns have burnt down. It’s a case of bodies like Victoria’s Secret, faces like Victoria’s Arsehole.

If I knew the Russian for “cheer up love – it might never happen” I get the feeling I’d be saying it day and night. (God has also been doing that thing where he gives 16-year-old girls the most perfect large breasts imaginable. I, of course, hardly notice.)

Anyway, I’m staying at an all-inclusive resort in Sharm El Sheik, and it’s lovely. Any drink, any food, any… well, any thing really – it’s all taken care of gratis, just as long as I wear my identifying wrist band. I can see myself going home with nearly as many flaky Egyptian pounds as I came out with, and a big white tan mark round my arm.

The entertainment is also free, but seems mostly limited to a bunch of dances the hotel’s ‘super-fun’ team has perfected. They call themselves the “Animation Team” which, frankly, I find misleading. It might just be some quirk of translation, but I haven’t seen any of them even open a pencil case, let alone attempt to draw anything.

Though even the youngest member of the Animation Team speaks about seven different languages, I still manage to convince them I don’t understand when they ask me to play water polo every day. I unhook my iPod, adjust my sunglasses and do my best to look both confused and concerned until they bugger off and pester someone else. I do take an interest though when I hear one of the team – a young, blond Russian girl – announce ‘Arabic lessons’. Now I think this is a fantastic idea. Rather than play darts or ping pong, why not take the opportunity to learn the local dialect.

The missus looks bemused when I tell her I’m off to learn a foreign language, especially as she had realised that the Russian girl (who spends most of her life talking in German to Arabs and must get very confused) was actually announcing aerobic lessons. “Aerobic”… “Arabic”… all very similar to the human ear I’m sure you’ll agree. And anyway, I’ve never yet entered a room full of women on their hands and knees in bikinis and been disappointed, so I’m certainly not going to start now.

I return to my sun bed, safe in the knowledge that I’ll always be remembered as ‘that English bloke who couldn’t speak a word of Arabic but made a real effort in the keep-fit class.’

The missus asks me to say something in Arabic with a smirk on her face. Rather than simply tell her to “piss off” I instead take the opportunity to remind her that she was the one who looked at the sign saying “Please don’t bring your glasses to the pool-side area” and asked how people without contact lenses were meant to find their way around. With the scores settled, we go back to ignoring each other…

Sadly some yobbos have ignored the ‘confusing’ sign, and brought hundreds of beer glasses down to the pool in an attempt to make optimal use of the all-inclusive nature of the bar. During the course of the afternoon they manage to knock most of them over, transforming the path to the showers into a shard-ridden route that wouldn’t look out of place in a Die Hard movie. I’m ashamed to find that they are (of course) Brits, and do my best to disassociate myself from them by looking German. This mostly involves hiding my clearly-English reading material and squinting a lot in a ‘German way’. I’d need an extensive series of photos to show you how I achieve this, but can assure you it’s very effective.

When I’m not busy trying not to look English, I’m busy trying not to shit myself. I must be the only person to come to Egypt with a stomach bug already - normally that’s one of the ‘souvenirs’ you get to take home for free. Of course stomach bugs out in Egypt really know what they’re doing, so a part of me can’t wait to release my pasty, half-arsed germs into the atmosphere so they can see what real stomach bugs look like.

In my mind I visualise a gladiatorial arena, where my seven-stone weakling germs – decked out in flip flops, union jack boxers, and wielding small frying pans – shuffle about looking bewildered. They turn to the sound of massive doors drawing open in the side of the arena, as the behemoth Egyptian germs confidently stride into view. Enormous strapping bastards; each over 7ft tall, bald, bronzed and built like brick shit houses - their bodies bristling with armour and weaponry. These boys aren’t going to give you ‘an upset stomach’; these boys are going to have you involuntarily pissing rusty brown shart out of your hole halfway through the evening buffet. Maximus Shitus.

Beyond the inevitable gut-rot, sunburn is another friend of the traveller here. However, thanks to what many might see as excessive use of factor 45 sun cream (I believe the next factor up is actually just a blanket with holes for eyes) we’ve managed to get right through the holiday without taking on that ‘healthy glow’ (a.k.a. skin cancer) that the other Brits are sporting. It confuses the locals trying to sell us things at the beach, because they don’t believe us when we tell them we’re going home in a few days. As far as they’re concerned, any Brit who’s been here long enough to be going home in a few days should resemble something a little more crispy, and they’re having none of it.

In an attempt to get away from the sales reps I decide to take a wander along our private beach. It’s all very nice and I lose track of how long I’ve been walking… until I realise that everyone around me is staring at me. What’s going on? I have all the legally-necessary clothes on. As far as I’m aware I’ve not shit myself (well, not recently anyway). So what’s the problem? And then I notice something... I am the only one with a blue identity wrist band. Everyone else around me has a red identity wrist band. Fuck. I’ve wandered off my private beach onto another resort’s private beach. These people are preparing to form a human barrier around their bar in case I attempt to go for any of their all-inclusive beverages.

It’s like LOST. I’ve gone to THE OTHERS’ side of the island, and am not welcome. I wouldn’t exactly say I sprint back to the safety of my own beach, but certainly one or two camels look up in a ‘fuck me, he goes quite fast’ way.

Back at the hotel and it’s time for the nightly lottery that is ‘guess what’s on the buffet’. It‘s actually been pretty impressive, with all manner of international dishes and plenty of local delicacies. I’m embarrassed to admit that my favourite meal so far was when they put chicken and chips out. How very ‘Essex’ of me.

On my last night I order a ‘Bedouin tea’ and an apple shisha pipe (I did originally show an interest in the coconut tobacco, but Toti - The Pipe Man - looked at me like I was some kind of tourist so I immediately changed to something more traditional). He asks me what I do for a living, and I almost forget what the correct answer is.

Oh, and in case you were wondering if this story was ever going to become relevant to poker, I drove past two casinos on the way to the airport. There, is that good enough for you?

See you next time...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Cheltenham Cherry

There’s only one word to describe walking through the gates to The Cheltenham Festival, and that’s “Fuck!” I mean it is abso-bloody-lutely huge! Something like 60,000 people are here today (the majority of which have already passed through the Guinness village and emerged the other site - totally shit-faced – before the clock has even struck eleven). Oh, and while we’re talking big numbers, let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of pounds that will be won and lost by the time the Guinness village inhabitants vomit their way back out the gates come 6pm.

With poker being my only real gambling vice I really am a fish out of water here, and don’t recognise a single person regardless of their possible horse racing-related fame and/or fortune. There’s a panel of experts at the top table talking through each race, and while each one drops in some subtle link to a channel they present on or newspaper they write for, they might as well be contestants on Strictly Songs of Praise for all the chance they have of being recognised by me.

One face I do recognise, however, is Raj Modha – the winner of the Ladbrokes Million. How nice - I think - that Betfair would invite him into their private marquee. Of course there really is no such thing as a free lunch in the gambling game, and it turns out that Raj is here because he managed to clean up on the Betfair Casino site, scooping 3 jackpots on the slots for £120,000. I wouldn’t say the people from Betfair are manhandling him over to their betting booths to gamble, but let’s just say they wouldn’t mind it if he chose to have one or three ‘harmless flutters’ while in their company.

The most interesting activity for me right now is trying to suss out the people around me. I can’t help thinking that if only I was a degenerate gambling Irish alcoholic I’d be having a much better time. Oh, and before you stand up and shout “racist!” my previous comment is based purely on the simple fact that 95% of the people I have so far met have been 1) Irish, 2) Drunk, 3) Gambling. I’ll leave the rest of the maths to you.

The other observation is that everyone has a friend who has some ‘insider information’. Scribbled notes, beeping pagers, and hastily printed emails are strewn about the place, as various ‘friend’s dad’s mate’s daughters know someone who knows something about a nag that may or may not be in form for the 3:30pm’. I chortle in a smug fashion at their folly… just as my mobile beeps with a text from a friend who has discovered ‘something’ about one of the 2:35pm runners from a forum. Hmm… secret information, you say? Perhaps I’ll give it a go…

Heading outside for the first race of the day I’m struck by the fact that this is really just like being at a big fireworks display. There’s lots of standing round in the cold wishing you were at home, followed by brief bursts of interest accompanied by ‘ooh’s and ‘ahh’s. Ultimately, once the show is over, the mostly disappointed crowd shuffles off for a consolation burger (which in this instance I’ll wager probably contains a fair amount of last year’s winner).

It instantly reminds me of the losers’ walk from the WSOP main hall to the Rio exit. A shambolic parade of broken souls trudging along; their dreams in tatters – much like the discarded betting slips that pile up like ‘sad snow’ as the races tick by. However, rather than a never-ending stream of bad beat stories, the air here is filled with far more positive self-deluding statements, including such classics as, ‘I was winning until it fell over’ and ‘There’s always another one’. Indeed there is.

Back in the hospitality marquee things are deteriorating. Even though all drinks here are free, I still catch one particularly fat patron stealing my seat and surreptitiously tipping the remains of my lunchtime champagne into his own glass. Gypsy.

I’m trying to look and sound like I know what I’m doing at all times, and when a passer-by casually asks who I have in the next race I confidently reply, ‘Opera Mundi’. I say this because it was one of the horses mentioned in my recent text tip. He smiles, wishes me the best of luck, and staggers off (no doubt looking for some free champagne to ‘steal’). I feel rather pleased with myself… a sensation that lasts exactly three minutes, at which time I realise Opera Mundi ran in the previous race. Piss.

Having decided to discard the fa├žade of knowing or caring about what’s going on I sit with a chap sulking in a corner. It turns out he is French and really wanted to bet on a horse called L’Antartique just because ‘it is French like me’. He was berated by his peers for such a childish reasoning, and told he should base his bets on form, previous form, the weight of the jockey, the weather, the ‘going’, and various other very important factors. Anyway, despite all that bollocks the French horse did win and this chap was feeling like a right Pepe Le Ploker who should have followed his heart and by rights should now be fanning himself with a wad of £50 notes. So much for form, eh?

A make a ‘horse radish’ joke that goes down so badly I’m not even going to repeat it here, and move on to annoy a different group of people. On the way across the enclosure I bump into a small child and turn to apologise, ruffling his hair in a playful fashion as way of apology. The surprising news is it’s not actually a small child, but Willie Carson – a jockey with an amazing tally of wins to his name. In the name of research I find his web site, which features so many impressive records and facts about the man that I couldn’t possibly list them all here. I can however tell you that he is available for corporate hospitality, weighs only slightly more than half my own weight and is – in my opinion – too small to exist. “Fuck me, that’s small for a human” offers a chap to my right, and I have to agree. The thought of him riding one of the magnificent beasts I’ve seen trotting around the paddock brings up only one image: that Ewok hanging off the back of an out-of-control speeder-bike in Return Of the Jedi. I’ll say no more on the matter.

It’s been an interesting day to be sure (see, I even sound Irish now) but the thought of the three-hour drive back to Essex, not to mention the additional hour finding my car in a field in a field in a field is going to take, sees me bow out before the final race kicks begins.

Before I leave there is however one thing left to do, and that’s to check my online Betfair account and see how all those tips panned out.

Good lord. I managed to turn £4 into £12. This time next year Rodney… this time next year.