I’m not a big fan of chess. I mean, I adore the game on an abstract level. It’s one of the few sports I enjoy watching. I think it is a great game. Just not for me. Chess makes me paranoid – I always have the feeling I ought to think around one more corner, that there is some invisible danger lurking on the board, ready to pounce whichever way I turn. In short, it makes me feel stupid.
I really like poker however. It may not be as brainy as chess, but it’s not a dumb game either. I’m certainly not the first to remark that it’s got a lot to do with psychology. Yeah, you need math, and that is probably my weakest point in the game, although experience and rote learning makes up for some of what I lack in actually understanding of probabilities. But you also need to figure out which way your opponent is going to jump. And even if I say so myself, I’m pretty darn good at that.
But my enjoyment of poker had little to do with the graveyard games my mates and I used to play in 2006 and 2007.
Let me introduce you to my former best mates. Musketeers, you know, one for all and all for one. Best friends forever. Only, of course, that nothing lasts forever.
I have known Orcun literally all my life. His rents lived next door to mine. Not only did his mum and older sisters and my mum and older sisters pass us back and forth for babysitting duty, but as toddlers we explored the courtyard behind our tenement block together. Nowadays it seems like a narrow, lightless yard, with more dirt than grass, a couple of sad thorny bushes, and a tiny playground consisting of a small, weed-infested sandbox, rusting monkey-bars, and a swing set without swings. But I remember it as a glorious jungle where Orcun was Stanley to my Livingstone.
Hector I know from kindergarten. He comes from a huge family with dozens of cousins, half of them in Berlin, the other half in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, where his folks are from. I suspect we mostly became mates because we were amongst the few who didn’t – yet – speak Turkish or Polish. By the time we left, we both did. Hector was better in Polish, I in Turkish.
And then there is Leo. When I started out in primary school Hector and Orcun were put into one class, and I was put into another. (Our kindergarten had informed the school that it would be better to split up Hec and me to prevent the formation of some ultra-violent gang or something of the sort.) Well, I told you that I had most of my fights with bullies. In the first year at school that bully was Leo.
Leo isn’t really a bully, but he likes to swagger, to talk loud, and to have a bunch of followers. I mean, he isn’t half-bad as a leader. He can make you feel very appreciated, not only for your public face, but especially for your hidden self. And he can make peeps cooperate, feel as a group. He’s been captain of our football team for years, not because he’s the best strategist – that would be Georg – but because he can make the rest of us listen to Georg in a way Georg never could.
But groups are made by excluding everyone else. And in school, who can you easier exclude than the misfits? Small, snot-nosed, red-haired, freckled, and very badly dressed me practically screamed for that position. All summer I had wondered who it would be I would fight in primary school, and by the end of that first week, with those first alliances and enmities forged and everyone knowing who they would sit next to come Monday, I knew.
I was scared, because Leo was a good head taller than me, and heftier, and the bruise on his face told me that he was no stranger to violence. But the dice had fallen and there was no way around it. On the way out I challenged him.
That Friday it had rained hard in the morning and a lot of teachers had come by car. Turned out that all grown-ups meant to watch us at the end of the day were leaving by the front door, where the car park was. Leo and I belonged to those kids whose way to and from school led them through the rear gate. It took ages for a janitor to hear the noise and come investigating.
Also, normally Leo wouldn’t have let things progress far. Even back then he was usually great at making peace. I mean, hell, I bloody learned apologizing from him. (It’s certainly not like anyone in my family has ever been able to say I’m sorry.) But not that day. The bruise I had noticed on his face has been a special gift from his father for losing a key to their flat a week before school started. After that Leo had gotten a long neck band for his key, and he was taking that off to stow it away in his pocket so I couldn’t choke him with it, when I, scared and hyper, attacked. He saw the key and neck band land in the curb swell of rain water and get sucked down a sewer drain. I had really pissed him off.
When we were finally separated I had two broken fingers and a seriously mashed up face. Leo had a deep bite wound at the ball of his thumb on his right hand. He was missing a clump of hair at his left temple. He also had a bad tear in the skin holding his left ear attached to the skull and a bleeding wound at the back of his head, both from when I had grabbed him by the ear and slammed him against the ground several times. He needed four stitches on the back of his head and three at his ear, but the conch never really healed completely, leaving it somewhat lumped and crunched up. We were both crying with pain and frustration, and I think exhaustion, but none of us would give in.
In the waiting room at the hospital at first we were both determined to hate each other’s guts, but boredom and joined worries about the reaction of our rents got us talking, about school, teachers, football, TV, computer games, and Star Wars. Turned out that we had both seen The Shadow Menace that summer. It may well be that our future friendship was forged in our common disdain of Pod Racing and the Gungans.
Hec and Orcun were well prepared to hate Leo in support of me – though Hec with a certain reluctance, because he had already been touched by Leo’s charm – but then we appeared best of friends the next week, and soon the four of us were inseparable.
We did a lot of stuff together, we joined the same football club, we had sleepovers, we snug into films we weren’t old enough to be allowed to see yet, all that stuff. When we were 12 we tried our hands at shoplifting. It was mainly a way to enliven otherwise boring afternoons. Eventually we were caught and got into a lot of hot water over it. After that Hector, who had blamed it all on my and Orcun’s bad influence, wasn’t allowed to associate with us until his rents forgot about it again. Leo got the worst thrashing ever from his dad. I don’t know what Orcun’s rents said to him – I doubt that they hit him, they never did – but he was very serious afterwards and never broke the law again, at least not to my knowledge. That had been the year I had first been taken in by the rozzers for attacking an officer, so on top of everything else, I suppose shoplifting didn’t really impress my mum all that much. She did give me the same sermon she had given Lukas and ‘Nessa on the subject a couple of years before, but it sounded tired and as if she didn’t believe it very much herself.
The next summer I came up with the graveyard poker games, and they all took to it like moths to honeysuckle. Between July and September of 2006 we would either claim to sleep over at each other’s rent’s places or simply sneak out at night and check out all the cemeteries of Kreuzberg, Neukölln, Tempelhof, Schöneberg, Tiergarten, Mitte, Friedrichshain, and Treptow. We would try to find a secluded place, sheltered by some mausoleum, or a thicket of trees, and play poker.
I was going to say that there is something very surreal about sitting with your best mates on weathered old gravestones in the middle of the night, smoking, drinking beer (or Pepsi in Orcun’s case; he takes the Islamic prohibition on alcohol very serious), and playing cards. But that’s not it, exactly. It isn’t surreal at all, it’s almost the opposite. It is as if that little circle of light you are sitting in, the circle of your mates, becomes the only thing that is real. Everything else just melts away, the wall of trees and darkness around you becomes the backdrop of a stage, as if the world was only painted on canvas. The ghosts of the dead all around become more real than the memories of the living and all your daytime worries fade away into insignificance.
For a short while you can breathe freely.