Illustration: Lily Lambie-Kiernan
The Serbs surrounded the city of Mostar. Holed up in their compound, the teenage soldiers of the Croatian Defense Forces – HOS for short – relieved the boredom of the standoff by smoking weed, using heroin and firing ammunition into the air, or towards the distant hills hiding camouflaged Serbian snipers.
“The streets of Mostar were deserted, so we asked our guide to find us a ‘boom boom’,” recalls journalist Joe Cusack. “Many of the soldiers we met were tired of the chaos and the killings – they had compassion for them – but the children of the HOS were not. They were like glue sniffers with guns. Everything was on edge. “
Joe witnessed the disintegration of Yugoslavia firsthand, alongside his childhood friend Graham Johnson, and their desire for “boom boom” was about to be satisfied. Hearing the blood-curdling moan of an incoming Serbian shell, they hit the ground.
Joe – then in his early twenties – remembers a cold sensation blossoming in his chest, followed by a split-second void when the shell hit a car and exploded about 40 yards away. . His ears buzzing with the explosion, he looked at Graham. A moment of understanding settled between them as they spontaneously burst into nervous schoolboy chuckles. They owed their survival to what they called the “X factor” – their nickname for fate, luck, chance.
A few weeks earlier, “X” had also been the determining factor in Joe and Graham’s departure from their respective nursing home and accounting jobs. Inspired by the classic counter-culture novel The man with the dice, and without any experience of journalism, they had decided their Yugoslav escapade on a roll of the dice.
Armed with a pair of fake press cards and telling their parents they were leaving for a session in Ibiza, they embarked on a life-changing journey.
The man with the dice is 50 this year. Its author, George Cockroft – writes under the pseudonym Luc Rhinhart – did not quite manage to see in the half-century, having deceased in November. But the philosophy of the dice described in his controversial satire on the rite of passage endures, inspires, and – to some extent – terrorizes to this day.
It tells the story – alternately comical black, repulsive and nihilistic – of a bored Manhattan psychiatrist who abandons daily decision-making to the roll of a dice. He abandons his family. He tries to rape his neighbor’s wife. He assumes bizarre identities on pickup adventures and orchestrates a massive escape from a mental hospital.
The book – published in 1971 – enjoyed slow success, eventually selling 2 million copies in 25 countries around the world. Honored by Charge magazine in 1999 as “the novel of the century”, it left a lasting legacy of dice followers around the world.
“There is something absolutely mystical about the dice,” says Joe, originally from Liverpool but now based in Manchester. “As you roll the dice, you’re tapping into something that’s already there, an undercurrent, like you’re predefined.”
Speaking on the other side of the world in Perth, Australia, Retter, 42, tells me about his own attempts with the Devil’s Bones, describing something almost identical to Joe’s underlying mystical stream.
“I used to use the dice to try to help the universe help me,” he says. “I’m an atheist – I don’t believe in the will of God and all that – but I certainly feel that there is an energy in the world, and the dice have helped me access some of that.”
As a “highly functional alcoholic,” Retter used the dice to navigate a succession of alcohol-fueled hi-jinks, and the lure of a bit of chaos was at times overwhelming for those in it. its orbit. He remembers how to roll for red or white wine in a bar one night went down on a pub crawl with an entourage of 20 people. Another time, over a weekend in his hometown, and with hours to spare before his flight home, Retter says his dice tinkering caught a woman’s attention.
“I said, ‘I’m leaving in a few hours – do you want to come home with me, or do I have your number?’ She said, “Let’s go! She had bought into the randomness of it, so we had this weird one-night stand. We had sex, then I didn’t have time to take a shower and put everything in my bag and went to the airport. What I didn’t know was that this girl had a boyfriend and that created all this fuss – I had to avoid a whole bunch of people for a while after that.
Retter quit the dice game a few years ago. “Now I have people who rely on me and I don’t want to let them down,” he says. But the power of his two little cubes (“I didn’t dice shit. I had glam dice – polished metal”) buried deep in his psyche.
“Over time you don’t need the dice anymore, you feel comfortable making random decisions,” he explains, remembering moving to Hong Kong on a whim. to accept an unexpected job offer. “It frees you from the shackles of obligation. People around you are saying, “Oh, we have to do this report before we make a decision. We need this case study. The dice man philosophy kicks in and you just say “Fuck it” and you decide. “
At the same time, he talks about being a slave to the dice – and their influence – to the point of tingling with apprehension at the mere suggestion of a board game: the dice in your hand beg to be rolled. The dice require that the roll be obeyed – the cardinal rule of the dedicated dice player.
“There were times when I didn’t do what the roll told me to do,” Retter tells me, “and I always thought that for the next few, regardless of the number of rolls, I would have the most difficult options. I remember sitting down and talking to my dice, and saying, “I’m so sorry, but can you just give me an easy choice now? I apologize.’
“When you asked about this interview, I knew if I didn’t, and if I ever came back to life, it was going to crush me. I had to do this interview – it wasn’t even a negotiation. , because I just knew the dice would have screwed me up otherwise.
Artistic director Araz, 44, from Gothenburg, moved to London in the 1990s – arriving with just a dozen in his pocket – on a roll. He stayed 12 years, became a dad, got a doctorate. Another expired dice, he gives the habit a break after rolling for it in 2013. He had been playing dice since his late teens and says it had become addictive.
“I had a brief correspondence with George Cockcroft, and he warned me that it was a very slippery slope,” says Araz. “Like most addictions, if you say you’re going to quit smoking, it doesn’t work well. But if you say, “I’m going to take a break – an extended break for I don’t know how long,” it works better. So one of the options I gave myself was to pause the dice if I hit a five – and I hit it.
“At first the dice game wasn’t deep per se for me, but later it got deeper – it was about actually embracing the change in life. Looking at my desk now, I have seven different dice here. It colors you for life and becomes a part of you, but … I always take a break.
Araz used his dice to boost a hedonistic streak that once saw a snowball stranded in West London – or a dice roll – jump on the next plane to Berlin for a night out at the Berghain. Usually recklessly, Araz flouted the club’s strict “no photos” policy.
“The bouncers arrested me and, technically, I am now banned for life,” he laughs. “But there are no regrets. The dice were a downward spiral for me – but a good one.
“I remember another time breaking into Harrow Cemetery for a drum session. I was walking up the wall with a huge crucifix in one hand and a bongo in the other, and people on a passing bus watched me. It made me realize that people don’t care what you do until you hurt anyone.
Araz describes how hitting the dice often brings a moment of clarity, as true desires reveal themselves in a yearning for a particular outcome.
This experience is confirmed by research, explains Eva Krockow, a psychologist specializing in judgment and decision-making. She backed down from Cockcroft’s book and the psychopathic possibility her narrator surrenders to, but says dice and other randomizers, like tosses, can be used strategically to reduce cognitive load and streamline taking. decision-making.
“Too much choice is a problem in modern society,” she says. “We think it’s desirable to have as many choices as possible, but in fact we can’t handle it, and ultimately it can be quite unsatisfying. You can randomize smaller decisions because they don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. “
Echoes of such tiny, seemingly inconsequential, haphazard decisions could take months, years, or a lifetime to trickle down to us. They can be so subtle we barely notice them, with the passage of time obscuring their origins and creating disconnection.
Joe and Graham, of course, randomized a very big decision – leaving Liverpool to cover a war in a foreign country – with obvious impact. Almost 30 years later, they are both investigative journalists, documentary producers and bestselling writers, with several bestselling books between them.
“I was not the same person when I came back from Bosnia,” says Joe, 53. “If I hadn’t left, I honestly think I would be in a council house, with a bunch of kids, in a housing estate. in Liverpool.
“The laws that govern chance are festooned with baffles. The universe throws these curved balls at you and you have to suck them up. I was the loser with dark circles under my eyes who never had the money for his bus ticket. Going from where I was then to where I am now comes down to a dice roll. “