Creative Non-Fiction Competition - Winner

John Simmonds

The Game
Creative Non-Fiction Competition


After thirty years of working for silicon valley technology companies selling stuff about which he had little comprehension, John relocated to the Dordogne in France and now spends his time writing, taking photographs, playing in a band, and golfing. His attempts at speaking the language are about as successful as his mastery of a decent golf swing, but he’s not complaining as he knows that given time anything is possible! Having self-published a couple of novellas and been published in some short story anthologies,  he is now working on his first major novel entitled The Justice League of Didcot, which, he constantly tells himself, will be ready for publication this year.

The Game By John Simmonds

Gambling when you can’t afford to lose is not for the faint-hearted. So when some students get together and take part in a betting game that gets out of hand, there’s likely to be consequences. It’s 1975 at Reading University, and the gambling medium of choice is three card brag. The game being played at this particular moment in time has become serious. Very serious. The faint-hearted had better prepare themselves.
Unlike more complex games like poker or bridge, three card brag is simple. Deal three cards to everyone participating. Then bet or don’t bet. There are a few more rules, but essentially that’s it. To play three card brag, and to understand this story, you need to know which hand beats which. Three of a kind, or, to give it its proper name, a prial, beats everything. Three threes is the best of all. Why three threes should be the top dog is a mystery but it is, so it is. After three threes the second best hand is three aces, then three kings, then three queens–you get the drift. If you are not fortunate enough to have been dealt three of a kind, then a run (nine, ten, jack, six, seven, eight, and so forth) is next up, and if they are in the same suit, even better! After that it’s a flush  – all cards having the same suit, followed by a pair. Last up, it’s the highest card that wins. There are over twenty-two thousand individual combinations of cards that can be dealt when playing this game, and the odds of being dealt a prial are nearly five hundred to one. The likelihood of being dealt the top hand of a prial of threes is much lower with odds of just over five thousand to one. Like England World Cup wins, they don’t come along very often.
It’s late spring, mid-afternoon, and I’m playing with a group of first-year students in Whiteknights Hall of Residence. I have just been dealt three aces. My hand can only be beaten by one other – three threes (remember five thousand to one?). We’re sitting in the common room area and this session has already lasted an hour. The air is thick with cigarette smoke, mostly Marlboros, although there’s a few gold packs of Benson and Hedges on the table as well. There are also cans of Breaker, (that year’s strong lager of choice,) accompanying the overflowing ashtrays. I look at my cards again to check that I’ve seen this right. Three aces. The best hand I’ve ever been dealt. I glance round the table – Steve Armitage is playing and Al Thomas is there as well, together with the usual others – Nigel Brown, Steve Ed, Al Slimming and Chris Smallwood. Same old players, but definitely not the same old game.
Three card brag betting is simple. You can either choose not to play (‘folding’), or you can bet. I’m praying that there are other players with good hands as well because there’s no joy in holding a monster hand if everyone else folds. It’s my bet first, and I put in the minimum stake of ten pence, because I don’t want to give the other players the impression that I’m holding a strong hand. Ten pence then would be worth around seventy pence now. In 1975 I’m a student living on twenty-five pounds a week, so you can, as the Americans say, ‘do the math’ yourself. To my delight, everyone bets and that ensures I’m going to win something. The betting spins round the table twice more before anyone folds, and the pot – the stake money in the middle – has grown to over two pounds.
That’s a day’s beer money already! I want to look at my cards again to check that they really are aces, but resist the temptation. My hands feel clammy and I am trying to look nonchalant. We all bet again, and this time I raise the stake to fifty pence. I’m hoping that this doesn’t scare off too many other players. The larger bet ramps up the tension, but everyone still stays in the game. Thank you, oh Lord of the Playing Cards, I think to myself! The pot is looking sizeable now, and Al Thomas quits when the betting gets round to him. Etiquette normally demands you don’t show your hand when you drop out, but he tosses the cards face up into the middle of the table, revealing a low flush – usually a winning hand on any normal day. He knows that with this level of betting and this number of players, the chances are there’s at least one person holding something better than him and a flush just won’t cut it. I’m feeling a little nervous now. That’s silly, I realise, but there’s now enough money in the middle to fuel a weekend’s drinking, and my cash levels are diminishing quickly!
We go round again – and this time Steve Ed folds. He doesn’t look happy – I suspect he’s been bluffing and was hoping that everyone would fold around him, but it seems obvious now that this game is not going to be won by a bluffer. Steve flicks his cards onto the table in his trademark way – he’s an off-spinner for the cricket team and his wrist controls the trajectory in a way that we lesser mortals couldn’t possibly match. They land face down, his eyes instructing us that this is the way these cards are staying – no revealing what he’s thrown away!
After the next round of betting, we’re down to three. Myself, Steve Armitage and Nigel. The music that has been playing in the background has stopped – I’m guessing that the needle has reached the end of the vinyl, and no-ones taking their eyes off the game in case they miss something. Instead we hear a slow click-click-click as the record spins round on the final groove. The bets go in, and Nigel offers a three way call where we can all stop betting simultaneously and show our hands. Click-click-click. Nigel must be thinking he doesn’t want to risk any more money. Click-click-click. Steve smiles at him and tells him no. I can’t believe my luck – he’s determined to carry on, and I’ve got the winning hand. Haven’t I? Nigel looks at Steve, then he looks at me. He’s put a lot of money onto the table and giving up now is difficult. I can almost hear his thoughts as they whirl around his head.
He looks at me and I nod back. No Nigel, I’m not planning to stop any time soon. Click-click-click.
Nigel throws his hand down. And we are down to two. Click-click-click.
Steve is a Yorkshire lad, a bluff and salt of the earth type. I’m a Brummie, with the apologetic demeanour of a midlander. Chewing on my fingernails, I’m staring at Steve as he watches me. We both know that we’re in a battle of wills as well as cards. We bet and bet. And bet again. Now I’m ‘drawing from the pot’, which means I’ve run out of cash and am borrowing my stake money from the bets already placed on the table. This dubious rule, introduced earlier in the year during some random game, means that you really can gamble more than you have in your pocket. It’s not quite the same as throwing your car keys on to the table (seeing as none of us owned a car at this time) but it’s still opening a Pandora’s box for those of us on a tight budget. Doubt creeps further into my mind. I am holding the best hand, but could it be? Could he have three threes? Odds say that he can’t. The urge for me to check my cards again overwhelms me, and I give in despite myself. I check again. Yes – three aces. I’m not mistaken.
“Steve, you need to fold!” I say. “I don’t want you to lose any more of your money.” He smiles and bets again. “I’m not joking Steve!” He smiles once more. And bets again. I experience a mixture of brilliant anticipation tinged with terror and grab a cigarette, my hands shaking slightly as I flip my Zippo open and light up. I’ve won enough now. But he won’t stop! Either of us can end the game at any point as there’s only two of us left, but really why would I want to do that? So we continue. I pull on the cigarette and feel the nicotine hit. The quiet in the room hangs loud, as if suspended in the smoke, broken only by that clicking. Click-click-click. The others are watching intently. I crack.
“I’m seeing you, Steve.” I’m calling him even though I am sure I have the winning hand. Could he possibly have a prial of threes? Could I be that unlucky? Steve turns his hand over slowly. He’s smiling. He looks so pleased with himself. Like a winner. “Oh god,” I think “what have I done?”
He reveals his hand. Three tens. I’ve won.

Judges Comments

The key to writing creative non-fiction is to use fictional techniques to tell a true-life story, and in 'The Game', John Simmonds has done it brilliantly, creating a tense piece of writing with the gripping qualities of a scene from a thriller.

John's piece shows that in the right hands, the everyday can be transformed into extraordinary writing - in this case, a students' game of cards becomes as nerve-wracking as a casino scene from Ian Fleming. John's achieved this through well-thought narrative choices and the skilful deployment of creative writing devices. Look at the choice of tense. Although the story is set in the past, John has chosen to write in first person present tense, keeping the reader absolutely in the moment as they experience each twist of the cards as they're turned through the narrator's intensely focused eye. John uses a conversational tone, drawing the reader into the story with the ease of a raconteur, explaining what they need to know without overloading them. He plants resonant details to evoke a particular time and place: cigarettes and lager brands, over-flowing ashtrays in grotty student digs.

Most of all, with each paragraph, he notches up the tension, bringing the focus ever-more tightly onto the cards as the game reaches its climax. It's so well done, with John not letting his reader relax for a second right up to the triumphant and climactic ending.

In a sure pair of hands, creative non-fiction can be every bit as enthralling as the best fiction, and 'The Game' is a case in point.


Runner up and shortlisted:
The runner up in WM’s Creative Non-Fiction competition is Mel Eldridge, Eastbourne, Wast Sussex.
Read the story at
Also shortlisted: Naomi B, Normandy, France; Gina Godwin, Aberystwyth; Eloise Hopkinson, Pinxton, Nottinghamshire; Damien McKeating, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffs; Patricia Minson, Falmouth; Jacqui Palmer, Bromley, Kent; Harry Seddon, Choppington, Northumberland; Caroline Slater, Aylesford, Kent; PJ Stephenson, Crassier, Switzerland