Tony Deyal | And the number is ...
The Penguin Dictionary of Curious and Interesting Numbers starts, "Numbers have exercised their fascination since the dawn of civilisation. Pythagoras discovered that musical harmony depended on the ratios of small whole numbers and concluded that everything in the universe was Number ... . Leopold Kronecker said that 'God himself made the whole numbers; everything else is the work of man.'"
The ancient Arabs, Ethiopians , and other African civilisations had systems for counting and even for writing down numbers. In India, numbers were first used around 4000 BC. By 1800 BC, Indian mathematicians were discussing the idea of infinity. They wrote that "if you remove a part from infinity or add a part to infinity, what remains is still infinity". Even without the concept of zero, an invention by the Indians, the Chinese were deeply into numbers and mathematical patterns, and different numbers were believed to have cosmic significance.
Even though they came to the Caribbean in smaller numbers than the Africans and Indians, it is the Chinese who brought the numbers game of chance named 'whe-whe' with them and it took root in only one country, Trinidad. The Chinese who came to Trinidad brought not just numbers, but what they stood for to the point that every object in every dream, vision and experience could be converted into one of 36 numbers.
For example, if you dream or see a centipede, the number you bet on is '1', which signifies that creature. The last number is 36, which represents 'jackass'. A dream or incident featuring a donkey or politician justifies a bet on that number.
This is the root of the game of 'whe-whe'. You can bet on any of 36 numbers, and until the Government took it over as a lottery spinoff, you got 30 cents for every cent bet on the one winning number in that play or draw.
In those days, right after the end of slavery and the start of indentureship, 30 cents was big money and 'whe-whe' developed as the primary game of chance throughout Trinidad. It was, of course, declared illegal because the Government could not tax it. Even though you can now play the government version, called 'Play Whe', for 24 cents on the dollar instead of 30 and have to pay taxes on your winnings, the game is still illegal if you bet with a private entrepreneur who, taking up the role of banker, surreptitiously conducts the game in a supposedly safe location, most times with some measure of police knowledge and protection.
In my hometown of Siparia, there were several places (called turfs) where whe-whe was played. At the turf, to assure his punters or bettors that he was on the level, the banker would write the winning number on a piece of paper, put the paper in a beer or rum bottle, and hang up the bottle on a tree or pole so that it was visible to all.
He would then take the bets, or 'marks' (written bets with the number, a dash, and the amount of the bet), and when he had taken all the bets, would 'buss' the mark. In other words, he would take down the bottle, break it in front of the bettors, and display the winning number for all to see and for the majority to bemoan their bad luck.
My friends still talk about the day we went to place bets at a whe-whe turf in Coora Road, which was in a grove separated from the forest by a small stream. One of the regulars was a little, old lady with a walking stick who hobbled slowly and painfully to and from the turf every day.
One day, perhaps because the banker had not paid them their retainer, the police raided. The old lady had a walking stick like the one Paul Keens-Douglas wrote about. She put it in overdrive and jumped across the river while the rest of us young, strong, and athletic men splashed through.
Then there was the day my friend Rabby, trying to escape the police, ran into a nearby parlour (cake shop) and went into the female owner's small dining room, grabbed a plate and a piece of coconut bake while the lady handed him a cup of tea. The police saw him in there and could do him nothing. A bit later, not hearing any commotion, he sneaked out and peeped through the back fence to see if it was safe to leave.
A gruff voice behind him said, "Don't move!" and the policeman waved a bull-pistle (a dried leather whip made from a bull's penis) in his face. He paid a fine.
There is a story that Gerard King, who had a heart problem, was the last man standing on the turf when the police raided. They charged him with 'assembling to gamble'. His lawyer, it is said, successfully argued that one person by himself cannot assemble, and he was freed.
While I frequently betted, it is only once that I got involved in banking, and that was the day my friend Jimmy, the banker, stubbornly decided to play the number 35, which stands for 'big snake', despite a huge dead snake at the entrance to the alley where the turf was located and almost everyone else dreaming they had an encounter with a snake.
My friend Orland and I had lent Jimmy some money to set up his bank and for the first time placed bets against Jimmy since it was the only way to get back some of the money we had "invested". Predictably, Jimmy 'buss' 35, or big snake, and we "bussed" our own bank. Jimmy gave up whe-whe banking and went back to playing a popular card game called 'whappie' in Moses' club.
- Tony Deyal was last seen in Siparia talking about the lady who was unfamiliar with the game and advised, as her first flutter, to bet the number of her age. She bet on 25 and fainted when she heard that the banker had played 33.