television review

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The Independent Culture
Dominic O'Brien can remember 40 packs of shuffled cards. He does this by associating each card with a particular face and then incorporating that person into an imaginary journey: so the four of diamonds is his bank manager and the king of clubs is Saddam Hussein. This unusual and apparently rather pointless talent is useful in several respects. It got him into the Guinness Book of Records, it helps him to charm old ladies on trains and, most importantly of all, it gives him a narrow edge over the casino at the blackjack tables. Unfortunately, the odds remain stacked in the casino's favour. Dominic has to remember the sequence of hundreds of cards, while evading detection by the pit bosses, burly men who appear genetically related to the bull terriers of the same name. All the casino has to do is remember Dominic's face, a task they are assisted in by the fact that he bears more than a passing resemblance to Saddam Hussein. As a result, he has been banned from virtually every casino in Britain and has to travel abroad to ply his trade.

Network First (ITV) had filmed him on a tour of the United States, to which he had gone with $23,000, staked by unusually trusting friends. He began the treasure trail in Biloxi, a seaside town in the Deep South, where local by laws allow casinos to be sited offshore. About six inches offshore by the look of things, but far enough at least to meet the legal niceties. Things did not go well at first, Dominic was banned from several casinos for having the impudence to lose money in a suspicious way and had to spend hours working his accounts back into the black. Card-counting, incidentally, is not illegal but the casinos take the view that it is distinctly unsporting of their customers to engage their brains while they are on the premises. If they suspect that such activity is taking place, two large gentlemen will help the offender find the door, not always an easy task in a well-designed casino.

If we had simply been following the ups and downs of Dominic's bank balance, this would have been a rather dull film; indeed there were times when it flagged a little. The casino scenes had a slightly bland air, as if they were all pretending to be making a travel programme, and for obvious reasons there couldn't be much film of him in action. But his travels from town to town also allowed you to glimpse the oddities of America's casino culture, a gambling boom which has resulted in monstrosities like Foxwood, "the largest casino in the Western Hemisphere". Foxwood has 193,000 square feet of gaming area and 3,864 slot machines, a number described as "approximate" by the man who gave it to you, but which sounded dime- countingly accurate to me.

Casinos are not in the approximate business, and, as a result, the Indians who own the land on which Foxwood stands, earn some $750m a year from the casino. In a nice irony they are now buying back the ancestral lands they were conned out of, bankrolled by the eager vices of the white man. Dominic finished his tour almost $10,000 up, which pleased his investors, but seemed a slightly meagre reward for the intensive hours he had put in. There have to be easier ways of earning a living than getting lucky.

At least, though, the professional gambler doesn't have to worry about being sacked. Nice Work (BBC2) offered tales of woe from several unfortunates who had suffered from "down-sizing", "restructuring", "separation" or whatever corporate euphemism was in vogue at the time. The films are very style-conscious - that slinky, elegant letter-box format, long fades to black, enigmatic interpolations and soundtrack music, so surreptitious that you have to turn the television off to make sure it's not coming through from next door. Even so some of the emotions managed to make it through the refrigerating aesthetic cool.