If love is a game, why am I so bad at it? And if love were just a formula, then would it mean anything?
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: girls are rummy.”
PG Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves
“Die, Japanese scum!”
It was about a year after the Lucy incident before Phil and I could be allowed in the same room together. Another two years later, the frost had thawed enough that we could sit down at Guy’s for a good-natured game of Risk. At least, it might have been good-natured if the two of them hadn’t signed a mutual non-aggression pact and attacked no one but me from the start. The map of the world was a sea of black and red with a tiny enclave of pink in eastern Asia; an enclave that Phil now seemed hell-bent on exterminating.
“Take it like a bitch, Bodle.” Japan surrendered meekly as I rolled a two and a one to Phil’s six, four and four. “That reminds me. You finished that book yet?”
The previous time we’d met, Phil had insisted I borrow his copy of The Game, Neil Strauss’s account of his adventures in the murky world of professional pick-up artists.
“Sorry, I’ll bring it next time. Depressing, isn’t it?”
“Fuck off, it’s genius.”
“Don’t tell me you actually went out and tried that stuff.”
Guy handed Phil a fresh can of beer and topped up my white wine. “Andy, this is Phil we’re talking about.”
“I’ve been fightin’ ’em off, mate. Peacocking, negging, cat-string theory … works like a dream.”
Three consecutive sixes put a dent in Phil’s forces before Mongolia fell. “So does Rohypnol, if all you want is a shag,” I said. “Those guys basically trick women into bed by pretending to be something they’re not. I want to meet someone who likes me for who I am.”
Phil raised an eyebrow. “And how’s that workin’ out for ya?”
Guy stepped in before I could say anything I’d regret. “Is learning a few short cuts to appear more alpha male really any worse than wearing makeup or a padded bra?”
“When a girl takes off her padded bra, you don’t generally find a writhing mass of snakes underneath. Anyway, what really disgusted me was their attitude to women. Even the author admits he ends up seeing them as objects.”
Phil’s troops swept into Irkutsk, albeit at the cost of his last cavalry unit. “Yeah, and as soon as he starts seeing them as objects, they’re all over him.”
“Every single man in that book ends up hating women.”
Guy gently placed a hand on my shoulder. “No offence, mate, but so might you, if you keep crashing and burning.”
“Personally, I want women for more than just sex.”
Phil pushed seven armies into Yakutsk, leaving me with two lonely pinks on Siberia. “That’ll be why you spunked 15K on whores.”
Guy leaned forward into the rapidly narrowing gap between us. “Be fair, Phil, that was years ago. We’ve grown up a bit now. I mean, there’s so much more to Amy than sex.” Three months into the relationship, he still couldn’t suppress a smile as he mentioned her name. I’d never seen him like this before.
Two lucky rolls allowed me to remove four black armies from the board. “Apart from anything else, the whole ‘game’ metaphor is just … wrong. It’s not a game, it’s deadly serious. These are people’s emotions, people’s lives they’re playing with.”
Phil glared at the stalwart defenders of Siberia. “Bollocks, no one got hurt. Like he says, ‘Everyone loves to be seduced.’”
“Yeah, I’m sure they adored being tricked, fucked, chucked, then gloated over on the internet … and I’m sure their boyfriends loved being cheated on. Besides, if it’s a game, how come I’m so shit at it? I’m good at games.”
“You don’t seem to be very good at this one.” Phil’s last attack failed; Siberia lived to fight another day. “For fuck’s sake.”
“Anyway, if it’s really that easy – if getting a girlfriend is as simple as reading a book, buying one stupid item of clothing and learning a couple of routines – if literally anyone can turn themselves into a pulling machine in an afternoon, what value does it have? I don’t want to be an alpha male, fake or otherwise, and I don’t want a woman shallow enough to want an alpha male.”
Phil lit a cigarette and passed the attacker’s dice to Guy. “The end justifies the means, mate. He ends up with a cracking bird, and he’d never have dared approach her without the pick-up tricks.”
“True,” I replied coolly. “Shame they split up before the book hit the shelves.”
Guy cashed in a set of Risk cards for 10 reinforcements, added them to the 11 he got for Africa, South America and 18 countries, and poured them all on to Ukraine. “I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but maybe, just maybe, if you just took a couple of leaves out of the book, it would give you the confidence to show them your real self, and give you a better chance of meeting someone you genuinely like. Siberia, please.”
I sulkily rolled a four and a five. “I don’t need to sleep with women to boost my self-esteem.”
Guy imperiously threw two sixes and a three and wiped me off the map. “Well, you need to do something to boost your self-esteem.”
To this day, I don’t know how I stopped myself scooping up all the remaining armies and cramming them into Phil’s smirking mouth.
“Lucky at cards, unlucky in love.” The words meant one thing: it was Friday night in the Bodle household, my grandma was over, and my mother was ruthlessly trouncing us all at rummy and whist. I should have known then not to put any faith in Nan’s dictum – she generally lost even more heavily than I did, and my grandad left her for the woman three doors down – but through sheer force of repetition, it became lodged in my brain.
My poor form at cards continued at university, where I was repeatedly thrashed at tarot, asshole and shithead. In the real world, however, it seemed nobody played cards (with the exception of poker, which is a proper, grown-up game, because people used to get shot playing it). So at the age of 22, I put those childish things away.
Thirteen years later, I was forced to dust them off again, when my editor ordered me to write a weekly column about card games. While I was as good a candidate as anyone – largely because the paper couldn’t afford to pay anything – I was anxious. There were a lot of games I’d never played, and I was pretty rusty on those that I had. I could have just cribbed from rulebooks, but this was my first ever newspaper column, and I wanted to do it right. There was only one thing for it.
I had a few friends I knew would help out, but they wouldn’t be enough. So I posted a message on the Guardian’s electronic noticeboard – “Players needed for weekly card night” – sat back, and waited for the tumbleweed to roll in. To my amazement, over the next few days, I received no fewer than 25 emails expressing interest. The Guardian Card Club was go!
So I painstakingly drew up a rota, reserved a table in the pub round the corner from work, and, every Tuesday for the next three months, hosted a night of shuffling, cutting, drinking, smoking and swearing. We’d start off with an old favourite to get everyone in the mood, then spend the second half of the evening learning a new game, which I would write about later in the week.
It was enormous fun. The banter was surprisingly lively, with many colleagues revealing wholly unsuspected qualities: sweet-natured Poppy from News turned out to be murderously competitive. Butter-wouldn’t-melt Wendy from Syndication swore like Malcolm Tucker with Tourette’s. Even Adam, habitually a slightly humourless soul, revealed an unsuspected lighter side.
True, not all Card Club members paid strict attention to the timetable. People would regularly cancel at the last minute, forget about it altogether, or come along on the offchance, so seven players on the rota might become two on the night, or vice versa. But on the whole, everyone was so relaxed, and friendly, and funny that, after a while, I started to look forward to Tuesday nights.
Eight or nine weeks in, there was another flagrant violation of the rota. Poppy had, without asking, brought along a friend. I recognised her instantly – about 25, willowy, with heavy-lidded blue eyes and dirty blonde hair cascading down her back, she’d worked at the paper until about a year before. I’d stood next to her in the smoking area dozens of times, but never dared approach, because even when she wasn’t on her phone, she wore an expression that said, “Speak to me and your sentence will end two octaves higher.”
At the card table, though, Charlotte was eminently approachable. She joined wholeheartedly in the repartee in spite of knowing almost no one, picked up the rules to euchre and racing demon in a trice, and even chipped in with a round. Most importantly, she laughed at my jokes.
When the evening began, Charlotte and I were at opposite ends of the table. But every time someone left to go to the toilet or the bar, she shifted up one place, so that by the final round – long after Poppy had left – she was sitting to my immediate right. When the time came to leave, I asked where she had to get back to. She must have misheard me, because she replied, “Not much.”
Discreet enquiries the next day revealed that Charlotte had a boyfriend of two years’ standing. My hopes, not having risen far in the first place, didn’t have far to fall. Oh well. She could come again, rota be damned.
Two weeks later, she did just that. This time, there were five of us, playing oh hell! and sevens. Charlotte was on even better form, sharp and boozy and bubbly and even more appreciative of my wisecracks. This time, she outstayed not just Poppy, but everyone. Since she was going home via King’s Cross, a stone’s throw from my house, I offered to walk with her. I mentioned that I was planning to go to the theatre; that was something she’d been meaning to do too, she said. Could she come?
The following week, a flurry of yoga classes, forgotten anniversaries and sick children left the number of attendees at just two: Charlotte, and me. To those of a cynical bent, the situation might have looked suspicious: me and the sexiest girl in the card club, alone for the night in the back room of a pub. Charlotte, fortunately, seemed unfazed.
You can count the good two-player card games on the fingers of one hand. But as luck would have it, one of the columns I’d been meaning to write was on gin rummy. Ten cards each, one card face up, try to play your cards out in melds before your opponent does. Big in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s. Oliver Hardy lost a fortune at it. Charlotte and I sat across from each other, sipped at our pints of cider, and began our duel.
Gin rummy, it transpires, is a surprisingly erotic game. Perhaps it’s because, as with poker, nothing really happens – draw, discard, draw, discard – until the all-important showdown. Is she collecting fives or low clubs? Is he deliberately holding on to my king? Is she trying to go gin? As a result, things can get tense, especially when games go long. And because so much of the game is mental, it’s important to look your opponent right in the eye, for any telltale signs of her intentions. When the bell rang for last orders, Charlotte and I had been staring into each other’s eyes for two and a half hours, and had downed six pints each in the process.
“Will you walk me to the tube again?” she asked as she lit up a cigarette in the street. “Of course,” said I. “Good,” said she, and grabbed the back of my head and crushed her soft, wet, smoky lips against mine.
I am ashamed to admit that quite a few seconds passed before I pulled away. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, um … haven’t you got a boyfriend?”
Charlotte shrugged. “It’s over,” she said, and pulled me in for a second blissful assault.
We walked on for a couple of hundred yards before she stopped again. “Well, virtually over.”
She explained that her boyfriend had treated her appallingly – there was a suggestion that he had hit her – and that she had been meaning to break up with him for ages. This, she said, was just the opportunity she had been waiting for.
As my tongue wrestled with hers, my brain wrestled with my dilemma. OK, so she was still, technically, going out with this guy. But he was an arsehole. And the relationship was over in her mind; he just didn’t know it yet. My hands, which had remained inactive until a verdict was reached, gratefully slid down her back to her full, firm, velvety bum. Charlotte responded by increasing the intensity of her kiss and running her fingers through what remained of my hair.
We kissed once more at the ticket barrier. “I’m going home to finish it right now,” she said, and touched my face. I could have burst with happiness. It had been a perfect evening. Except the bit where I got thrashed at cards.
The next morning at work, the phone rang: Charlotte. My heart leapt. But she said nothing about her promise; she was calling because she’d lost her purse. Could I pop to the pub and check? I slipped out of the office and ran to the Gunmakers. They’d found it. I called her back with the good news, and she said she’d come to the office to pick it up later that day.
I hadn’t quite finished work when she arrived, so I ran down to reception to hand the purse over. Just me, alone, with no props, in the cold, harsh light of day. Charlotte was awkward, distant; she was wearing her smoking-area expression again.
The next day, lacking the courage to call her because I didn’t want to hear the words, I sent an email. “You’re not leaving him, are you?”
♥ In 1990, the Kinsey Institute of Sex Research estimated that 37% of married American men and 29% of married women had had an affair. According to a 1992 survey by the US National Opinion Research Center, 25% of married men and 17% of married women had been unfaithful. The 1993 General Social Survey came up figures of 21% of men and 13% of women. The results for the University of California in 1998 were 24% of husbands and 15% of wives; for the Australian Daily Telegraph’s 2009 Super Sex Survey, 34% of men and 31% of women; for Opera North in the same year, 30% male, 40% female.
It should not surprise us that estimates of marital infidelity vary hugely, because this is one area where people are least likely to answer questions honestly. However, there is high variance even when the answers are supplied anonymously.
One unmistakable trend is that the figures for women are rising faster than the figures for men and even, on occasion, overtaking them.
Earlier, in our discussion of numbers of sexual partners, we saw that the figures for men were roughly 80% higher than those for women, at least partly because women tend to round down their totals.
Photo credit: Flickr / ccarlstead