Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Connect Four: The Cambodian Past Time

By the time we swore off Love Orange, we started hanging out with Trea, her Irish husband Steve, and Vrath, a Khmer American and LanguageCorps Cambodia former-student. Before working for LanguageCorps, Trea was a Connect Four hustler at Howie Bar, so she took Ben, Vrath, and me to Howie Bar. Sporting dusty floors, two bars, lots of Connect Four sets, and girls to hustle you, Howie Bar is a Phnom Penh institution among expats. One of the great things about Howie Bar is that none of the girls working there will go home with the patrons. They make their money by getting customers to buy them drinks at $2.50 each, of which they get $1.00. Most patrons buy the girls drinks after betting on Connect Four and losing. Sit down at the bar, ask to play Connect Four with one of the girls, and you will win the first few games. Howie Bar is a late night spot—likely you have had a few drinks before heading in—so winning a few games gets you cocky, and when Lana (I was playing Lana) offers you 4-1 odds (she wins four before you win one) for a drink, you feel pretty good. And then Lana beats you in four swift, consecutive games. She smiles, takes your money, and you renegotiate the odds. Okay, this is not an invented situation—this happened to me. Luckily at this point Vrath spoke up and said the girls will play 10-1 odds, to which Lana shot a dirty look at Vrath. After losing the first six games, I won the seventh game and Lana bought me a drink. The down side to the whole deal is that when the girls lose, they have to buy drinks out of their own pockets for the customers. Lana did not want to play me any more—apparently it is rare for a new customer to beat one of the girls so soon. So I played a different girl: she won the first round, I won the second; I bought her a drink, she bought me a drink. Ben was doing much better than I was. The girl he was playing was very stubborn, and even though Ben had three beers on his side and he had yet to buy any, she would not quite playing nor would she renegotiate the odds.

The next morning Trea and her Irish husband had many angry text messages from the Howie Bar girls demonizing them for brining two forongs who beat them at Connect Four. Despite Ben and I making it look easy, those girls (so says those girls and Trea) rarely lose; to loose a few times in one night is nearly unheard of. Bolstered by this news, Ben and I planned a new assault on Howie Bar. Ben found a 25 page Connect Four analysis online, which we studied for the next two days. The two biggest things in Connect Four are 1) going first in D1 and 2) occupying spaces D3 and D5. The columns are labeled A-G from left to right, and the rows are labeled 1-6 from top to bottom. We decided that going first was so important that we needed to bargain for it—instead of playing 10-1 we would play 6-1 or 9-1 and go first every game. Then we memorized the best moved to make after we started in D1 and the girls went. We learned some strategy too: if you go first, try to occupy rows 3 and 5; if you go second, try to occupy rows two, four, and six; always try to build a “J” pattern. Ben and I quizzed each other on what we learned all the way to Howie Bar.

Many of the girls say that the best Connect Four player at Howie Bar was Trea, and that Annie, Trea’s little sister, was making a strong run as following in her sister’s footsteps. The girls immediately recognized Ben and I when we entered the bar. I sat down and Annie brought over a Connect Four set. We played a few games to warm up. She quickly beat me in all the games. We negotiated 6-1 odds with me going first every game. She won the first six games and I bought her a drink. We renegotiated to 9-1, still with me going first. After six games, Annie started joking about beating me so quickly: she took a napkin and patted her forehead and smiled—so, so hard to beat me, she said. I won after seven games; she bought me a drink; she wanted to play the same odds. I won again; she bought me a drink again—she got really angry, pulled my hair and pretended to choke me—but she wanted to play the same odds again. I won a third time; she was furious. I asked her to keep my extra drinks in the fridge so they would not get warm and Annie flipped. I bought her a drink just to make her calm down. I offered to renegotiate the odds. She refused. We played again. She won five and I told Annie that after this match I was done with Connect Four—she was getting to serious for me. I won two games later. I did not buy myself a single drink all night; I bought two for Annie.

A few weeks later, a few former LanguageCorps students from Vietnam went to Phnom Penh for a few days. They visited Vrath and Trea and wound up at Howie Bar. After returning to Vietnam, they reported that the girls still remembered Ben and me.