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Chapter 1: Pearl Harbor attack begins in Harvard
"Today I will speak about poker and military tactics."
Lieutenant Commander Isoroku Yamamoto carried no notes. The information was stored in him the way a gambler remembers his opponents' moves.
"Poker is structured on principle of international equality, because each suit hold same rank."
He was also gambling on grammatical errors lying like submerged rocks in the course of his message. The American instructor noted them.
"Poker is also based on equality of races, because colors have equal value."
It was 1919, shortly after the Versailles Peace Conference, where Britain, The United States and Australia rejected Japan's proposal for racial equality for her nationals on a par with white nations. More than a decade earlier the "yellow peril" of those countries shifted from China to Japan, and white newspapers cranked out warning-siren editorials. Was Yamamoto trying to be heard in those capitals?
" Within each suit, we go into monarchy. It is unavoidable when we remember that cards were born in society of kings and queens. But in poker we do not chop off their heads in European tradition, but rather try to play them to advantage."
This brought a few audible chuckles, except from his subordinates. Yamamoto was Japan's naval representative and language officer at special classes for foreigners, Harvard University. Even if some of the men under him understood his dry humor, none would commit the discourtesy of a smile while his commanding officer was speaking.
"Poker is not game of chance. It is game of psychology with element of chance. There are probabilities, but we assess them individually. This mean the value of each probability different according to who is assessing. And, in addition to assessing probabilities in cards," and here he pointed in succession to the hypothetical opponents in the space before him, "we must assess reaction of other players." He remained silent for a few moments but maintained emotional torque as he shifted his stare from one set of imaginary eyes to the next. "Thus, as level of total skill in game increases, role of chance become corresponding smaller. Luck become demoted. Skill take more command."
Yamamoto was thirty-five years old then, two years my senior. He was short even by Japanese standards, and at first appearance solidly built, but he had a kind of gentleness under it. He always wore a single white glove on his left hand and, until I learned the reason for it, I assumed it was an affectation from the British model of the Imperial Japanese Navy. He wore the glove during his speech.
"Poker is combination of psychology and mathematics. In this, it is very close to military tactics." Yamamoto directed this last sentence towards his American instructor, almost carving the words into him. "The player must assess what cards other side is holding. In case of tactics, what armaments. Poker player must then assess likely reaction of opponent to various stimuli. Commander must do same in battle. In poker, in military tactics, assessment of opponent reaction cannot be taught by rule. Cannot be learned by rule. It is unique problem each time, and instead of learning rules, one must learn skill of assessment." Yamamoto took another pause, then went on. "I believe poker should be required training for all military officers." Americans and Europeans smiled; not one Japanese finger twitched or face thawed.
"Gambling sometime has bad name in society. This is not fault of gambling. It is because average player does not know basic strategy of 'only a fool does not know when to quit.' So fool lose all his money and cause harm to family and to gambling reputation. In military tactics, only fool commander does not know when to quit, and continue losing more men and equipment." American and European heads nodded in a signal that they were absorbing his logic. "In conclusion, I like to say, my instructors here at Harvard need not worry that I will not know when to quit playing cards in order to study. It is opposite situation. One of my problems at this university class, in addition to English grammar and pronunciation of course, is finding poker partners of sufficient skill."
Yamamoto finished his speech, part of his classroom practice in the "English E" course for foreigners. He bowed to the students in the auditorium, then to his instructor, and walked back to his seat. He was in charge of a contingent of some seventy navy men from Japan, and it was astounding how they snapped into complete, instant focus when they sat in front of a text, as if it were a religious tome transporting their minds with The Law of Grammar. They seemed driven by duty to capture idiomatic expressions like so many prisoners to take back to their emperor, and I am sure that if nude women paraded through their classroom, naked reality would not disturb a study of the subjunctive. When Yamamoto left the speaker's platform and the others in the room began applauding, his subordinates joined in but in a mechanical cadence with arms that 0seemed controlled by a single command station. I applauded knowing that I had found a gaming partner, and the next evening when we were on free time, I approached him.
"The British call it a pack," I said holding up an unopened one, "but here in America it's a deck. Any time you're ready. . ." And that is how I met the future Admiral Yamamoto.
Two-hand poker was neither his game nor mine, but the tempo of the card table at Harvard increased, largely led by Yamamoto with me as his second in command, as we found other players to join us. On weekends, he often invited some of us to his residence in Brookline, where he lived at 157 Naples Road. We both preferred five-hand poker when there were three other players available with the skill we required and the willingness to neglect their studies. With less than five, the mental challenge lacks the complexity to whet the cunning. Going into six or seven players increases the role of chance and reduces that of psychology. With five, we played with little talk. When it was just Yamamoto and me, as many of our games were, it was for a chance to chat, even though conversation with Yamamoto often implies an economical meting out of words.
Our first game of poker was also the first time I saw Yamamoto remove his single glove. The index and middle fingers of his left hand were missing from the base. He sensed my reaction more than I did. "Russo-Japanese War," he said as he laid the glove to one side. Three sockets fell flat and limp. The other two were filled with dummies, and the glove maintained a two-fingered point in a random direction during our game.
As a Swede, I was a comparative rarity at the classes. In addition to English--the Swedish naval authorities thought some American influence might be good to balance our British English leanings--I took some engineering courses. But it was geography and history which produced a sense of common understanding between the Japanese and me. The huge land mass of the Soviet Union lies over the Asian continent like a two-headed bear, its western teeth gnawing at Scandinavia, its eastern jowls opened towards Manchuria and snarling across to Japan. The Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War, and especially the naval victory in the Battle of the Japan Sea, was part of our studies of military history in the Swedish Naval Academy, and indeed studied by military men of the world. It was awesome and inspiring how a country not four decades out of a secluded, samurai era defeated the land and sea forces of the Czar--the world's most powerful army, the world's second most powerful navy. Scandinavia's long history of trouble with the Russians generated a special admiration among us for Japan. Finland's location had made her Russian problems the greatest, and after the Japanese victory a Finnish beer came out under the label 'Amiraali ' with a picture of Admiral Togo on the 0label. Every bottle was a toast to the admiral from another tiny country who showed that the Muscovites could be smashed. I wondered whether Amiraali might help me get on board Yamamoto's ship in that battle.