Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The value of a Belarusian Ruble

I believe I have finally figured out the actual value of a ruble here in Belarus. And I think that figuring out the value of money is an interesting thing because values shift from time to time and from place to place. And what was a valuable thing one day is in the garbage the next. Or visa versa.

Over the course of the last few days, I believe I have found two legitimate valuations that have put the currency, at least for me, in perspective. In case you don’t know, the ruble, and this is the second currency in the fourteen year history of the country, has been sort of wracked by inflation since it was offered. The first currency also had this problem and finally died in the great economic debacle of 1998. This second currency was issued and traded for the old at 1000 to one and of course the second also ballooned after it hit the street. In fact, because of inflation they even stopped making the ones and the fives last year and now the smallest bill you can get is a 10 ruble note and even this is said to be in danger of extinction. Though to be fair, things have actually been stable at about 2150 rubles to the dollar for the better part of the last year and half or so. I believe this is because the ruble has been pegged to American currency since the Euro started to climb. So if you ignore how the dollar has been plummeting, you could say things have kind of normalized. But because of its history people here generally have no faith in the ruble and therefore assigning it a real value is difficult. However I believe I have come to understand that not only does the ruble have value, but I believe I understand what it is. And more so, I would like to say here and now that it is in fact much more valuable that one might think.

The first revelation of how to value a ruble came to me as I was preparing to plant some popping corn up at the farm. We actually hadn’t even thought of planting this variety of corn at first. We don’t have all that much land so you do need to be a bit careful in how you use it. But then two things happened to get us into the idea. The first thing was that I started jonesing seriously for some pop corn. And I mean seriously. I don’t know where this came from but I simply had to have some. And you have to know that pop corn is not all that common here in Belarus. I don’t know why, but it is not. So dealing with that jones was a problem and we had to make a proper search in order to find a few bags. Anyway we did and the second thing that led to the idea of actually planting some came when I ended up planting my melons in a different place than I had originally intended. The melons were supposed to go out to the end of the field, but then with all of the rains, a garden of squash never even sprouted so I scrapped it and decided to use its space for the melons as it is a bit closer to the well. Anyway, this left a small section at the end of our field unplanted and so the thought struck me to plant a few ears as I was wiping the oil and salt off the bottom of a bowl of freshly popped pop corn that we had just emptied. But I am digressing.

Anyway, Egor and I were up at the farm and it was dark and we were sitting at the table playing cards and he reminded me that we needed to put the corn in the ground the next day. It is about the last chance to plant because of how long it takes to grow. So we put down the cards and took out a bag of popping corn. Did we want to plant one bag or two? Well, let’s count ‘em.

“We don’t need to count them.” Egor said wanting to go back to the card game. “It says on the package that there are 100 grams in a bag.”

“Yes, but we have a field that is roughly 25 meters long and perhaps five meters wide to plant in. We need to know how close together we have to make them. How many kernels do we actually have to plant?” So we counted and found that there were almost exactly 700 kernels in the bag. And you know what? Ironically, the cost of the bag was identical to the number of kernels in iot, 700. So, you wanna know what the value of a Belarusian ruble is these days? One kernel of un-popped popping corn.

Now, I know that you are thinking that one kernel of un-popped pop corn does not a fortune make. But please remember that that that kernel is in fact a seed and once planted, should it grow as it can, it will produce an ear of corn which will have another 700 seeds or so. “Save the seeds” my friend Bruce would say to me time and time again.

So, anyway, getting back to knowing the value of a ruble, last night I asked Egor if he would play a game of chess with me for money. Why did I do this? Well, because over the last year or so, Egor has shown a great propensity for losing the big games, the ones that he has to win. The money games. And this has not only been true for chess, but also in school and in some cases socially as well. And today he had a really important game, one that might have an influence on his future. This game was not for the win but simply for a particular position in the final standings. Specifically winning this game would give him 61/2 points in the tournament and his teacher told him that should he finish the tournament with 61/2 or better, he would be granted the rank of second “reserat”.

Reserat, is basically translated as a players rank. It is a different from the standard numerical chess rating which assigns a number between 0 and a theoretical 3000 (A fourth reserat plays at perhaps 1400-1600 and grandmasters play at between say 2400 and something like 2800) because in the former USSR, a sportsman’s reserat stays with him on his record as a measurement of his achievement in his discipline. And so achieving a higher reserat allows for a better career path. A second reserat is better than a third, a first reserat has clout and candidate masters and masters are the winners. Egor has been sitting on his 3rd reserat for over a year and several of his friends have passed him by during that time.

Now, before I go on with the story, we can for a moment speak about the pros and cons of introducing gambling into the life of a child. I know there are those out there amongst you who would say that this could easily be seen as corruption of a minor and that employing an “adult vice” is not a proper tool to use in the education of a child. But I don’t agree that this was what I was doing at all. I would simply say that one of Egor’s problems over the last couple of years, in chess and in life, is that he always blows the big game, the big test. I don’t know how many times he has found himself in a position to do something cool, only to fold under pressure and do something stupid instead. In fact, he has been one of those guys who “finds a way to lose” and he has been just awful when he is under pressure and when the chips are down. And this has also been true in school when he has had to take tests in math and Russian and English, etc. It has been rather heart breaking, really. And if we are tired of this, you would have to believe that the kid might be growing tired of pretending things don’t matter also. So, what I did was that I took a chance that I could get through to him using a tool which really means something to Egor: Money. Egor likes money. We give him an allowance every week, or rather he earns an allowance by keeping his world in reasonable order. It is not a lot of money but it is enough to get some candy or something like that but in general, money is to Egor like a duck’s wing is to a yellow Labrador: It is in the genes. But betting him was not about winning or losing money but rather about teaching him the concept of the “Money game”. And this is why I brought up the bet. I wanted to create a money game. Put some action on it. I mean, I knew what would happen.

Anyway, my offering to play chess for money must have sounded to him like early Christmas. Egor and I have played a little over 600 times and though we were even for a while, he long ago went past me and now I am hard pressed to ever come up with a win. He must have thought I was a fool. This was easy money. So this is what happened last night: Right after dinner, I invited Egor to play a game of chess for money. He thought for a moment, smiled and agreed. “How much should we play for?” I asked him.

“I don’t know.”
“Well, we should play for something you can afford. How much money have you got?” He counted his money and then thought about it for a minute. His lips were moving as he thought about it.
“Let’s play for 200 rubles.”
“Ok. 200 rubles a game it is.”

His eyes were wide as saucers as he calmly walked me back to his room to set up the chess board. He had hooked a fish and didn’t want to spook me lest I change my mind about handing over some easy pocket money. He was probably thinking that this was some kind of early birthday present or something. But you know my dad always said, you can’t hustle a hustler (or you can’t bullshit a bullshitter). Was I hustling him? You bet I was. I had this kid beat from the proposition. I knew it, and from the moment I made my first move, he knew it as well. And yes, it was like taking candy from a baby. I beat him like a rug. And after, and believe me I took it from him, I accepted payment on the 200 rubles right then and there and then refused him a rematch telling him that it was time to go to bed.

Now I knew that this hurt. I mean, it was more than his chess ego. I know how much that 200 rubles meant to Egor. The money has a definite value to him in candy or in pop. But I let him sleep on the loss anyway. And then this morning over breakfast I offered to let him have his chance to get even. I could see this time that he was a little squeamish about playing me. He still wanted to play though after my ass whooping last night, he only wanted to play for 100 rubles a game. I agreed knowing exactly what would happen. He had been thinking about the game all night and this time a little more careful then the night before, he never allowed me anything close to position on the board. He played a great game. You could see him setting up traps like a pro. He really wanted this game and without too much problem, he won. I agreed to play him again. You could see the confidence flooding back into him and in this second game the kid came out showing his teeth. I never had a chance. But just before the end you could see the gloat starting. Egor may be a pretty good chess player, but he has not yet learned any of the gentlemanly skills. He thought it was time to laugh at me. I figured it was time to make my real gambit.

“You know, you little shit, you would have been way better off if you had played like this last night.”
“So. We’re even.”
“No we are not. I won.”
“How did you win? The money is the same. And even I won two games and you only one.”
“The money doesn’t matter. I won the big game. The important game. I won the game that meant something; the first one. You only won the games where there was no pressure. Where you know what would happen. And, when there was less money on the table. You only won the small games, the cheap ones. I won the big game.”
“So, it is more than money. Why didn’t you win last night?”
“Because you were better.”
“Was I?”
“And now?”
“Now I am better.”
“Egor, you knew you were better than me before we even started. You have been better for half a year. Why didn’t you just take the game?”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll tell you why. It was because you were scared.”
“No I wasn’t.”
”Yes you were. You were so afraid of losing that you forgot to win. You were so afraid of making mistakes that you forgot to play.”
“That’s not true.”
“Yes it is, you had so many things running through your mind you forgot to just play chess. I knew you would fold. That’s why I made the bet. You thought you had some easy money coming, and so you thought you would just take it from me. But I took it from you because you forgot to play your best game when you needed it. And I’ll tell you what else; you were still scared this morning.”
”No I wasn’t. I played again.”
“Yes, but you only wanted to play for 100 rubles. You were afraid of losing again, yes? I could see it on your face. And then, when you remembered that you are a good player, when you remembered that you knew more chess than me, only then did you decide to play your best. And when you did that, look what happened: The game wasn’t even close. And you know what else?”
“This is you every time; in school, in chess- everywhere. You knew I would win last night, didn’t you?” He thought about this for a moment. The point hit home so I decided to press my advantage. “Think about it, Egor: How is this different from taking tests in school? Or in talking to people about important things? Or about getting things right in chess club? You always let fear get the best of you and every time there is an important meeting, a big game, instead of simply giving it your all, you let yourself lose. You always do this. Last night, I offered you a chance to have some extra money and all you had to do was show up and give it your all. And, if you would have played like you are playing right now, with blood in your eyes and murder in your heart, you could probably beat me every time, wouldn’t you? Well, that’s life kid. How many math tests have you blown simply because you have been scared to try to learn? How did you only get a seven in English with me living with you? You simply forgot to take the good grades when they were offered, just like you forgot to take my money last night. You got to take it kid. You can’t sit around for them to give it to you. You have to take it when it is there.”

I guess that the point was made because Egor won his game today. Today he won the big game, the game he had to win. He won the big game and after was told by his teacher that he has received his second reserat rating. Good job, kid. Well done.

So you know, the point that I am trying to make here is that though these Belarusian rubles may be small, and they are getting smaller all the time, they still do have value. Wouldn’t you agree? I would. I would even think that it would be a good “kernel of wisdom” to always remember to respect things, regardless of their size. I mean you just never know what is going to happen, do you? 200 rubles?? That ain’t nothing my friend. It’s something. I mean hell, even just one ruble, one single kernel of corn, should it grow as it can, might turn out to be something special. Couldn’t it?

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