December 2011 on Earth, but it is eternal midmorning on the third layer of the Astral Plane. THOMAS OF AQUINO, NICHOLAS FLAMEL, and K'UNG FU-TZU sit at a card table, in that order clockwise around the table. At the fourth, otherwise unoccupied, spot sits an ominous blue-painted Chinese porcelain ginger jar.
Tom: Did you bring the chips, Nick?
Nick: Yeah, I got them right here.
Connie: Ah! How are you gentleman.
N: Fine, fine. Deal those cards, I'll count out the chips. We haven't got all day.
C: We have, in fact, all eternity. But, I deal.
He offers the deck to Nick, who declines the cut. Connie starts dealing out five cards each to Tom, Nick, and himself. Nick quickly counts out one hundred Italian 1-euro coins for each player.
Tom - joker Qh 10c 9c 4c
Nick - Jh 9h 8h 3s 2d
Connie - Js 7s 7h 2s 2c
T: What's in the jar?
C: Ah! I was waiting for you to ask that. The jar is empty, for the moment. In recognition of the Christmas season, and to promote one's own moral rectitude, it seems fitting that should one of us stoop to foul or indelicate language during this morning's game, well, then one must contribute to the jar. The most recent contributor is, and initially I am, keeper of the jar and responsible for handing it to the next should he detect an inappropriate turn of phrase; he is on his honour to police his own verbal transgressions also. At the close of the session we shall contribute the proceeds to buy Christmas gifts for the unfortunate atheist children!
N: Funny to think of you celebrating Christmas at all, Connie.
T: But most welcome, of course.
C: Ante up, gentlemen.
They each put a euro in the pot, and Nick and Connie pick up their cards, but Tom is examining one of the coins.
T: Strange sort of denarius...
N: It's an Italian euro. There's a nice DaVinci picture on there. I thought it'd make a good chip.
C: How is it that one can obtain euros here, Nick? Surely they are still in use on Earth.
N: Yeah, but not for much longer. It's effectively as dead as us. Hey, don't think too hard about the mechanics, just go with it.
T: An Italian... "you-row"? But what is become of the lira?
N: Unified European currency. It's been that way years and years. Jesus, Tom, have you turned on a television set this century? Or ever?
Tom eagerly picks up the ginger jar and thrusts it at Nick. Connie gives him a stern look.
C: I am Keeper of the Jar for the moment, Thomas. But I am forced to concur. One euro in the jar for the blasphemy, please, Mr. Flamel.
Nick puts a coin in the jar, opens his mouth, closes it, and then opens it again and speaks carefully.
N: We haven't even started playing yet.
C: I think Thomas saw the Bjork video about what television does to one's eyes, and got scared. As one does.
N: Well, I can't argue with that.
T: Unified currency? Do you mean to say that all the world is now under... one government?
N: Just Europe, and it's gonna fall apart sooon.
T: Tell me, is there any talk of people being required to bear marks... perhaps on their right hands or foreheads? In order to buy and sell?
C: It's your bet if you want it, Tom.
Tom looks at his cards and crosses himself.
T: Two of these diabolical "euros."
N: That's two too rich for me.
T: Your cards must have been bad indeed.
C: I, however, will raise you ten.
Connie puts twelve euros in the pot, and Tom grunts and adds another ten.
C: Will one require more cards?
T: Yes, one will require one.
He discards the Queen of Hearts, and Connie deals him the six of spades.
C: One for the dealer as well.
He discards the Jack of Spades and deals himself the Four of Hearts.
C: What'll it be?
Tom knocks on the table.
C: So be it. It is the charitable season, so I will only take you for five more.
T: I'll see that.
They each add five more euros to the pot.
C: Two pair, sevens and deuces.
T: I have only this, I guess it amounts to an ace high.
Nick hoots with laughter.
N: That'll teach you!
T: I was pretty well on my way to a flush.
N: At a one in four chance? That was a sucker bet with only one euro from me in the pot. But hey, you can call it Christian charity for the heathen over there.
C: Ah, pardon me, should "heathen" count as coarse terminology?
T: Probably not, if it's literally applicable.
C: Ah, so.
T: Don't worry, we'll get him again soon enough.
Tom gathers the cards and starts shuffling them.
N: Well, speaking of charity, I got the strangest sort of prayer the other day.
T: You? People pray to you?
N: Soitenly! Of course it was probably meant for some other "Nicholas," you know how bad the mail's been getting.
T (to C): Cut?
C: Thank you.
N: Yes, the supplicant said, "Dear Nicholas, what I want for Christmas this year is not to have to beg anymore."
C: So sad. Another of the poor little atheist children, no doubt.
T: I wonder if you know what that word means, Connie. But, Nick, it is a sin to read someone else's mail. Shame on you!
N: I'm not too worried about that at this point.
T: Unconcerned? About being Damned to the Satanic tortures of Hell for all Eternity?
N: Here you are! At least one of those had to have counted.
Nick gives Tom the ginger jar.
T: I don't think any of it should count when it's a literal description.
C: Ah, do not think too hard about the mechanics, just go with it!
T: Whatever you say.
He puts a euro in the jar, and one in the pot. The others add their own antes, and Tom deals everybody five cards.
Nick - Ah Kh 6h 5s 4s
Connie - Qs 7h 5h 4d 2s
Tom - Jd 9h 5c 4h 3s
N: I don't want to bet on this shit. As for my eternal soul, that's no longer in question.
C: Alas, my own hand is also inauspicious.
T: Then we have a free card, gentlemen.
N: Anyways, this supplicant -
T: That will be a euro for the "anyways," sir. I wish I could censure it more heavily.
N: You just let me get away with "shit," but not "anyways"?
C: "Anyways" is worse.
N: Oh, fine. So. This supplicant, I don't think he was a poor little atheist child. I did some research and it turns out it's a grown man, fairly well off, not much I can see for him to complain about -
T: Do you want cards, or do you wanna talk?
N: Three cards. And so I wondered what the -
Nick discards his six, five, and four, and as Tom deals him the Seven of Hearts, Jack of Hearts, and Queen of Clubs, Nick theatrically adds another euro to the ginger jar, in advance.
N: - wondered what the HELL he had to beg for. Didn't really figure out a clear answer on that, but it got me thinking some more, about, really, just what does it mean to "beg"? Like, what's the difference between "begging" and just "asking"?
T: Cards to you, Connie?
C: Give me four. An inauspicious number of cards to improve an inauspicious hand.
Connie discards everything but his Queen, and receives the Nine, Eight, and Six of Diamonds, as well as the Three of Clubs.
C: It seems clear to me that begging is just a special kind of asking. Surely one cannot beg without asking.
Tom crosses himself.
T: Just two cards for the dealer. And it's true, begging must be a special kind of asking. Indeed, as a mendicant myself, I can say that it is the highest and most spiritual kind of asking - among human beings, of course. Prayer has some similarity to begging in its nature.
Tom discards the Jack of Diamonds and Nine of Hearts, and deals himself the Ten of Spades and Eight of Hearts.
T: Your bet if you want it, Nick.
N: No. Check. Yeah, yeah, to "beg" is a special kind of to "ask," but what makes it special? And if it's such a great thing, begging your pardon Tom, but why did my supplicant want to ask me or any other Nicholas for putting an end to it? I mean, just as far as semantics, what does the word really mean? If someone asked you for something, how would you know if they were "begging" or not?
C: We had mendicant monks in China, too. They'd go around with their bowls asking lay persons for food, and that was "begging," for certain.
T: But when I ask you to bet now, Connie, I'm not begging. Because I don't really give a damn if you want in on these three denarii or not.
Nick gives him the ginger jar and Tom puts in a euro.
T: May the atheist children know the true happiness which is God.
T: And I, too, have no appetite for this hand. Shall we give these three denarii to the atheist children?
N: No. May the atheist children all get jobs and quit looking for handouts. The usual rule is those coins go in the next pot, and we didn't agree in advance to change that.
C: You Grinch.
T: Please, what is a "Grinch"?
N: My God, Thomas, you have GOT to get cable, if you make it out of this game without going broke!
T: This is for you.
He hands him the ginger jar.
N: For what?
T: You took the Lord's name in vain.
N: But you said "God" yourself a minute ago! All the poor little children knowing true happiness and stuff.
T: But I did not say it in vain.
Nick puts a euro in the jar.
N: I think you're having more fun with this jar than with the cards. So, in a case like this does the deal rotate?
C: I think so. It's just a normal hand that happened to have no winner. The winner, if any, would take money out of the pot; no-one did, so it remains.
T: Works for me. What did you all have, by the way? I had a ten high.
C: Queen of spades and a bunch of small diamonds.
N: I should have gone for it, look what I had.
T: My response is, that will teach you.
Nick gathers the cards, shuffles them, and offers the deck to Tom to cut.
Everybody puts a euro in the pot, and Nick deals them each five cards.
Connie - 10s 7d 4c 3s 3d
Tom - Ah 10c 8c 7h 7s
Nick - Kd 8d 7c 5h 4d
C: Let us see if one has been taught. Five.
T: I'll go that far with you, but no further.
N: Well, if all the other kids are doing it.
They each in turn add five euros to the pot.
C: Two cards for me, sir. To return to the earlier topic, which was of some interest, it seems that mendicant monks under vows of poverty, whether Christian or Buddhist, when they ask lay persons for food, we agree that can be counted as "begging." I submit that the homeless persons one sees on city streets "beg" even if they are not ordained monks; that is why they are called "beggars." But the small incidental requests we make of each other in the course of playing poker? Not begging, clearly. And I think I earlier heard you, Nick, "beg Tom's pardon," but perhaps that is an unrelated word.
Connie discards his Four of Clubs and Seven of Diamonds, and Nick deals him the Jack and Nine of Clubs.
T: Two for me also.
He discards the Eight and Ten of Clubs and Nick deals him the King of Clubs and Queen of Spades.
N: Four cards for the dealer. I think begging your pardon is just a stock phrase - we say that because it sounds fancy, like Tom was saying begging is in some sense a higher form of asking so it's extra polite to say "begging" your pardon instead of "asking" your pardon, given that we're only talking about pardon at all for politeness reasons. So let's not count that. But are there other kinds of begging or not begging that we can distinguish?
Nick discards everything but the King of Diamonds, and draws the Ace and King of Spades, the Nine of Diamonds, and the Five of Clubs. Connie looks at the piles of money and thinks about his pair of threes.
C: Perhaps one may waste three more on this venture.
T: Let's make it five.
N: Five sounds good to me.
C: I was trying to go easy on you, Tom. It is the season of charity. But as you say five, so five it shall be.
They all contribute to the pot.
T: There is something I was going to say: you can be too proud to beg, and that is very close in meaning to saying you are too proud to accept charity. Indeed, that is part of why pride is such a sin: it acts contrary to charity. Indeed, it appears your supplicant may be troubled by such a sin. So I think you are "begging" whenever you are asking for charity. And as all agree the greatest virtue is charity, there is the spiritual connection, and an operative definition for the word besides.
C: Ah, "faith, hope, and charity, these three"? If you will pardon the pun, what about THESE threes?
T: I answer that here are two sevens to beat them.
N: And a pair of kings to beat those. The dealer takes this one.
Connie gathers the cards and starts to shuffle them.
C: Thomas has argued that begging is just asking, if one asks for charity; but then we must think about what "charity" means, and it seems we could play the game forever of shifting the hard question to the definition of some other word. One might well dispute the meanings of "pride" and "sin" also, for instance, and it implicates religious questions about which we are likely to disagree. Nonetheless, I think one has an intuitive notion of the strong - parents and the king, for instance - helping the weak, such as the atheist children whom we have been talking about as a marker for all disadvantaged persons. And one naturally considers such charity admirable, with or without Christian or, ah, my own teachings on the subject.
T: Deal the cards, Connie.
C: Your ante first, sir.
They each put a euro in the pot, and Connie gives the cards to Nick to cut. He continues lecturing as he deals.
Tom - Ac Jc 9h 6c 4c
Nick - joker ad kd jh 2s
Connie - 9d 8c 6h 4d 2d
C: Mendicant monks are obligated to beg for such necessities as food and robe-cloth. Much the same is true of lay beggars. Even when they are begging to fund alcohol or drug addictions, a caring society must accept that those are needs too, and assume shared responsibility for the circumstances that created the needs in the first place. No-one becomes a slave to a human master or to a habit on his own initiative just because he wants to. It requires the participation of other human beings. Your bet, Tom.
T: I check. You're neglecting, probably deliberately, the role of the Devil in tempting Man into bad habits, and free will means that sin is by definition a personal choice, but we don't really need to have that argument right now. I am willing to concede for the purposes of this inquiry that once a man is sufficiently enslaved by sin, his bad habits can become needs that are, if only in subjective perception, on the same level as food. It would seem you take the view that "begging" is defined as asking for a need, regardless whether it be a legitimate intrinsic need such as food or a supposed need fostered by infernally-encouraged habits.
N: Three euros. The little atheist children don't NEED toys at Christmas, but it's still charity to give them to 'em. And I don't think the Devil makes them want to have toys, nor that there's anything actually wrong with children wanting to play with toys, at all. Yet, we're calling the ginger jar a charitable project. In fact, I get more of a warm feeling that I'm doing something nice by giving a kid a toy than by giving them a bowl of gruel, never mind whether that makes moral or logical sense. I'm not sure I know what charity really means, but it isn't just providing for needs.
T: You switched from defining begging to defining charity.
C: And it's television that makes them want toys.
T: If you want to use "television" as a euphemism for "the Devil," go right ahead.
N: Are you going to call my three euros?
C: No, one must fold. Back to charity: I think giving is more like charity if it is giving needs, but Nick says charity need not be confined to needs at all, and Tom and I at least will go so far as charity not being limited to the most basic and - Tom says "legitimate intrinsic," I might say "edifying" - needs. It's still charity to buy the junkie a dime bag, if one may be blunt. Needs make it more like charity but are not the whole of the definition. Can we say that charity is the strong helping the weak?
T: I fold too. It's all yours, Nick.
N: Waste of a good pair of aces.
Tom gathers the cards and shuffles them.
T: I would answer that, as for begging, you are more likely begging if you are asking a favour of one stronger than yourself. And prayer, which is our gift and supplication to the Almighty, obviously the weak addressing the strongest, expresses a higher form of the same principle, thus denoted by a special verb "to pray" which is even more emphatic than "to beg." We would never think of calling it begging when we ask nay demand something of one weaker than ourselves, even if we asked for a clear need.
All three place their antes in the pot, and Tom offers the cards to Connie to cut.
C: Thank you. But as a wise father is responsible to support his children, when they ask for necessities and he provides, it is neither his charity nor their begging; only the Will of Heaven prevails on both sides.
Nick - kd qh 10h 8h 7h
Connie - ks 10s 9c 9s 4c
Tom - 7s 5c 4s 3c 2c
N: Maybe you've nailed it there, Connie: begging is when you ask someone more powerful than yourself, to go out of his way and do something he's NOT obligated or responsible to do. Two euros.
T: But it has to be something important.
C: I will raise you eight, for a total of ten. Not just any request beyond a powerful person's responsiblity should count. As Tom said, it has to be something important - to the one asking. Can we agree that asking is truly "begging" if it is addressed from the weak to the strong, it is beyond the strong one's filial responsibilities - at least as an individual, for society in general beyond any individual may have a duty to mendicant monks or those laity improverished through no fault of their own - and also the weak one cares much more about the answer than the strong one does? That would seem to address all the distinct cases we have discussed, except perhaps the fossilized politeness of "I beg your pardon."
N: I don't like the idea that whether it's begging or not depends on how the person doing the begging feels about it.
Tom looks at his cards and crosses himself.
T: I will... call.
N: I mean, if the consequences of you asking and me answering are the same, it doesn't matter how you feel about it. It's a basic principle that if there's no observable difference then there's no real difference. I mean, you wouldn't say Tom calling the bet is an actually different action depending on his unknowable feelings. At least it should have the same moral value.
C: One might say it was different. He might be bluffing, or he might not. Two different actions, two different verbs, depending on his unknown cards.
N: Hm. Maybe. And anyways, Tom does the sign of the Cross when he's about to make a ill-advised draw to a hand he ought to fold, so there's kind of an observable difference after all.
T: That should be one more euro from you for the atheist children, sir.
N: Damn. Okay, okay, two. And I will call the bet as well.
C: This may be expensive for you.
T: Cards, Nick?
N: Two for me.
He discards his Seven and Eight of Hearts, and Tom deals him the Deuce of Hearts and Three of Spades.
C: One for me. I have no problem with one's feelings determining whether an instance of "asking" is an instance of "begging" or not. One's feelings are an open book to Heaven - or to "God" if you please - and why should they not enter into the true meaning of begging? Indeed, one might view intentions, which are knowable and can enter into moral choices, as much more important than consequences, which are unknowable. It is not just for our actions to be judged on factors outside our control, but we are responsible for our innermost feelings and decisions made on the basis of them.
Connie discards the Four of Clubs and Tom deals him the Joker.
T: One for the dealer.
He discards the Seven of Spades and draws the Ace of Hearts.
T: Your bet, Nick?
T: What about you?
C: Ah, this is worth at least five.
T: Let's make it fifteen.
N: Way too rich for my blood.
C: I call.
N: Seriously, guys, my supplicant said he didn't want to "have to" beg anymore. Like he doesn't have a choice, and it's defined by more than his feelings. He didn't want to just feel better about it.
Tom and Connie reveal their cards.
C: Two pairs.
N: How do you figure that, Connie? Looks like just a pair of nines to me.
C: I am counting the Joker as a King.
T: Can he do that?
N: I thought it was the bug.
C: What is a "bug"? Cannot I count it as any card to make the best hand?
N: No, only to make up a flush or a straight. Or both, of course. Otherwise it's just a funny-looking extra Ace. And the same hand made naturally would outrank one containing the bug, if they would otherwise be equal.
C: You used the Joker to make a pair before.
N: I did. It was a pair of Aces.
C: One thought the usual rule was the Joker could be counted as anything, even unto creating an otherwise-impossible five-of-a-kind hand. That is how we always played in Shandong.
N: Well, that's not standard poker.
T: It's true, Connie.
Connie says something in Classical Chinese, and Nick hands him the jar.
N: I don't know what that meant but I'm sure it was foul.
C: Ah, I admit it. As for the cards, it does not really matter. Tom's straight would beat two pair anyway, but one would have bet differently had one known about this "bug." Shall we continue to play the Joker as such in the future? I would prefer that it be a simple wild card.
T: I'm sure we can find a copy of Hoyle somewhere around here.
N: I was going to suggest Wikipedia.
C: The authority of such sources is not so important as the house rule we select for ourselves.
T: I find your moral relativism disturbing.
C: One is disturbed by these complicated rules! And the matter is not exactly a moral dilemma.
T: Oh, fine, make it wild. It's not worth fighting over.
N: Just to be clear, you mentioned five of a kind, and that is still possible with the bug, though only in the case of five Aces. Not likely we'll see it, but we should all agree to prevent future unpleasantness that five Aces is the best hand in the game.
C: But a natural five Aces would outrank four Aces and the bug, would it not?
T: Show me a natural five Aces and go to Hell. Yes, thank you, here is a euro for the ginger jar. Nick, you were outvoted, we're going with a fully wild Joker, so any five-of-a-kind hand is possible.
N: I don't care, as long as we're all playing the same game.
T: Five of a kind hands are also ordered by rank with five Aces best of all, right?
N: It doesn't matter because we have only one Joker.
C: Ah, so! But we might someday play a variation where it would matter, such as with other wild cards or with Communist cards -
T: Community cards.
C: Ah, thank you - and so it is wiser to have the more specific rule ready for such an eventuality.
N: If we must. Are you boys going to ante?
They each put a euro in the pot, and Nick deals.
Connie - Ad 9d 7s 4d 4c
Tom - Ac 6s 6d 3c 2c
Nick - joker 9s 8d 6c 5s
N: Your bet, Connie.
Connie knocks on the table.
T: Four euros.
Tom puts four euros in the pot.
C: You are trying to psych me out.
N: I don't care about your inner feelings. Raise by ten.
He puts in fourteen euros.
C: Well, one is scared whether you care about it or not. I fold.
T: You went too fast, Nick. But I'm still with you for the moment. Call.
He adds ten more.
T: Two cards, please.
He discards his Deuce and Three of Clubs, and Nick deals him the Five of Diamonds and the Queen of Spades.
N: No cards for me.
T: You're bluffing.
N: Come and find out.
C: Hey, do you plan to answer that prayer, Nick?
N: Make it ten.
T: Very well, but we'll leave it at that.
They turn over their cards, and Nick rakes in the pot.
N: That's mine. Connie, I haven't decided yet. That's why I wanted to hear your thoughts, and see if I could figure out what the fuck he was actually asking for.
C: This is for you. At least you can afford it now.
Nick puts a euro in the jar.
T: I was sure you were bluffing.
C: At least, one is sure Nick does not regret agreeing to the wild Joker.
N: Doesn't matter, I was completing a straight so it would have counted either way.
T: I would advise that your supplicant pray to God, or perhaps a saint of his choice. Not to you.
N: Look who's talking.
C: Indeed, one perceives just a hint of conflict of interest there.
T: I didn't say which saint!
C: Never mind that, it is a funny sort of prayer. If the supplicant feels forced to "beg" for necessities of those above him despite being himself far above the impoverished caste, then society must be dysfunctional indeed not to provide without his asking. Such a case entails that the King has lost the Mandate of Heaven, and must be replaced, and that is more important than one little living being's problems. But if it be "begging," then by definition your supplicant seeks for what no-one has responsibility to provide, therefore not necessities if you agree with me that society always has a responsibility to provide necessities; and then who are we, or indeed he, to say he deserves such privilege over others?
T: You are so giving the atheist children a euro for that one.
N: Indeed, what?
Connie and Nick look at each other.
C: Well, it would be unseemly to argue about it. And I imagine neither of you would much like my own answer for the supplicant, namely "Ask your ancestors."
Nick gives him the jar and he puts a euro in it.
N: No, and Tom and I do not necessarily agree that anybody is responsible to provide even necessities for another, Connie. Your line of thinking seems to hinge on that and it's quite a mouthful. No, I am thinking instead I'll answer this prayer with advice on how the supplicant can transform himself into the kind of person who doesn't need to beg.
T: Why not transform himself into the kind of person who enjoys begging? Then he would be just a small step away from enjoying prayer, which is a most admirable perfection.
N: Because I'm not as cruel as you are, Tom.
C: I would hear more about this personal transformation. One remembers, now centuries ago, certain sages who talked about such things; but to be honest I never understood a word of it.
N: Well, it's your deal, Connie. You better shuffle these cards. Now, while you do that, how much do you boys know about the chemistry of heavy metals, gold and mercury in particular?