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In official MC championships, up to and including the World Championships, the game is generally played in the manner of a game "for honour" or "for love of the game", rather than for personal gain: to the player who reaches Mornington Crescent first, belongs the honour of having defeated his opponent or opponents (which may or may not carry prize-money), a point in the league-table (in league-based competitions), or the ability to advance to the next round of the competition (in knockout competitions), either on behalf of himself or his team. In knockout competitions, it is a simple matter of the winner takes all, and the loser goes home with nothing except whatever tokens he brought to the game (all of them): and in leagues, while a player may also have to watch his total token value difference, this said value-difference is only used in cases where the win-loss record of players is otherwise the same. It ends up being curiously like chess in this respect, where the only goal is checkmate.

In the gambling halls and casinos, however, there is the remaining echo of an "alternative" history of the game, one in which almost every facet of the game mattered, and stake money was laid on almost anything, by both players and spectators: frequently to the extent that the actual reaching of Mornington Crescent itself became of comparatively little importance, for whatever a player lost by failing to do so, he might well make up on numerous side-bets throughout the course of the game, or on minor or major struggles for control in some area of the board. Indeed, in some cases, a player would actually eschew a win precisely because doing so would cause an end to the Game, at a time when the player would end up seriously out of pocket after losing out on the side-stakes, in favour of attempting to recoup his losses so that when the game ended - *whoever* won it - he would be either ahead of the game, or at the very least able to pay whatever debts he might incur.

Some of this ethos has, of course, carried over to "championship" MC - it is considered bad manners to snatch immediately at a victory when much of the rest of the game has gone against one, when one's "kudos" level (as assessed informally by the opponent, referee and spectators) is too far below that of one's opponent. Nevertheless, bad manners though it may be, it *is* only manners, it is not actually illegal - and, indeed, many of the successful championship players are indeed those who pursue a MC-at-all-costs approach. In fact, it is arguable that MC-At-All-Costs has to a certain extent even been enshrined as an ideal, in the concept of the Perfect Venbacker-Maelberg Score, where victory is achieved *with no excess tokens at all*.

But this is not so in the casino - just as it was not so, in the many centuries where Mornington Crescent was played for either real money or for the more esoteric type of game tokens, whether in high-class parties for the nobility, middle-class gaming rooms, or in the smoke-filled, dirty, sweaty atmosphere of the lower-class inns in the room behind the skittle alley, next to the shove ha'penny tables. In the casino, the attitude still persists that it is the game tokens that are the most important thing: for, while in championship MC all players bring a personalised "set" of tokens to the table within predefined limits and each leaves the game with whatever tokens they started with, win or lose, the difference is that in the casino, you bring whatever you own, and you leave with whatever you can retrieve from the table, whether it originally belonged to you or somebody else.

Fortunes were - and still are - made and lost: it was said that Sydney Hall once turned up at a casino with no more than 50 assorted tokens of blue, red and black plus three bronzes, and did not leave till four days later (going almost completely without sleep except for nodding off for a couple of hours occasionally, and living mostly on the finer blends of whiskey), by which time he had actually run the casino's bank completely out of all but the rarest of tokens, bankrupted three other players and had death threats (cheerfully ignored) made against him by two others, and was richer by tokens of both "conventional" and "unconventional" types, to the value of several million - most of which, having little use for, he donated straight back to the casino or the players who had lost them (with the exception of those that had threatened him, who received nothing), giving back tokens of all the "conventional" types - even gold.

When asked what he was up to, his reply - "I've never actually *seen* an obsidian token before and I was hoping to push somebody into playing one" - entered the annals of legend. He did, indeed, see one - in fact, he saw ten, and won nine of them, all on various side-bets or struggles for control of comparatively minor parts of the board, without ever actually hitting Mornington Crescent himself: and proceeded to use them to great effect as part of his official token stash in the World Championships the following year, winning in the completely different "championship" style of play. Sadly, Hall was the last of the true maestros of both the major styles of Mornington Crescent play: after him, the styles began to diverge so far that no players have crossed the divide with any real success.

And thus it is that, in the Championships, the famous players are those that win the greatest number of matches and hit Mornington Crescent with near-monotonous regularity: and if they ever bring "unconventional" tokens to a game it is because they have bought them from a shop. (Some are, indeed, reasonably cheap, at no more than the cost of one Standard Beginners' Set for ten: others fetch hundreds or even thousands of pounds from Corner and Side or similar dealers, and some "discontinued" types are only available from collectors). Meanwhile, in the casinos, gamblers continue to win and lose vast fortunes, both in tokens and in real money, but none since Hall have come out of a casino to win the World Championship: and even the greatest and most successful of the punters are seldom known of even by the most avid MC-obsessed member of the public, not even one who could name the result of every match in the World Championships for the last fifty years.

In fact, probably the best-known person to have played Mornington Crescent in a casino, since Hall's retirement, was a man famous for entirely different reasons than playing MC (and, in fact, did little more than break even, over the course of his MC gaming career). Ian Fleming originally intended the first encounter between James Bond and Auric Goldfinger to take place over the Mornington Crescent tables: and, drawing on his own considerable experience, he created a highly believable game, played on one of the archaic rulesets frequently preferred in the casino. (In fact, the dialogue may have been different, but the actual moves may even be drawn from a game that Fleming himself played in.)

Unfortunately, before "Goldfinger" was ever published, Fleming had a disagreement with MC Player magazine, after receiving a critical review of an article he submitted for publication: he actually wrote on the subject of this divide in the Great Game's history, between those that "played to win" in the championships (which he refused to enter) and those that "played for tokens" to win them off other players - lamenting the fact that players nowadays preferred to buy their tokens from shops rather than win them from other players. If he had confined himself to his initial argument, that each "non-conventional" token bought from a shop increases the number of such tokens in the game, and devalues the price at which they are bought in the shops, therefore such tokens should also decrease in the value and effect they have on the game itself, he might have had a less scathing review: but Fleming went beyond this, deriding the championship-winning records of several players (mentioned by name, and including all of the top twenty in the world rankings) as being "bought rather than truly earned".

After such a comment, critical bile from most of the "competitive" MC world was pretty much inevitable. In disgust, Fleming gave up the game completely, destroyed all his tokens, ripped out the chapter containing the encounter, and replaced it with the now-famous game of golf. Copies of the Missing Chapter are, consequently rare: they would be impossible to find at all, were it not for the fact that at least one proof copy (sent before the deletion) got lost in the post on the way to the publisher, and ended up at the house of a man whose real name is not publicly known but goes by the pseudonym of "Mr Frederick Acre", who is alleged - although nothing has ever been proved - to have since made a fortune's worth of rare or expensive token types (and not one single penny of actual money) from selling copies.

[JLE]


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Last edited April 1, 2007 3:40 pm by Simons Mith (diff)
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