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Six degrees

Mark Footer

 

President Xi Jinping’s (left) recent tour of Africa began in Tanzania, a country that rarely makes global headlines. A glaring exception occurred in 1871, when, in Ujiji (in what is now western Tanzania), the “scoop of the century” was bagged by a young, hungry reporter from the New York Herald. The reporter had risked life and limb (his own and those of many others) to find an explorer who had been missing for several years, and utter, upon discovering the man, the immortal line: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” That reporter would go on to be a noted explorer himself. His name was Henry Morton Stanley …

 

Or, rather, it wasn’t. Stanley was born John Rowlands in Denbigh, north Wales. As an illegitimate child, he was virtually abandoned by his family, spending many years in a workhouse for the poor. He left Britain aged 18 to make a life for himself in America, taking on odd jobs and the name of a cotton trader he probably never met (according to biographer Tim Jeal) before reluctantly fighting on both sides in the civil war. Stanley could well have been the only man to serve with the Confederate Army, the Union Army and the Union Navy. After the war, he embarked on a career as a journalist. In one of his early interviews, he asked his subject how many men he had killed. “Considerably over 100 white men,” replied Wild Bill Hickok …

 

James Butler Hickok was a gunfighter, scout, lawman and folk hero – but also a very good card player. In 1876, at the age of 39, he was playing poker in Nuttal & Mann’s Saloon in Deadwood, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, when he was shot in the back of the head by a buffalo hunter known as Broken Nose Jack. The cards Hickok was holding at the time of his murder – which have since become known as the “dead-man’s hand” – were a pair of aces and a pair of eights, all black (it is not clear what the fifth card was). In 1979, Hickok was inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. Unlike Hickok, 21 of its 44 inductees to date are still living, including Johnny Chan …

 

Chan was born in Guangzhou in 1957. He lived in Hong Kong for six years before moving to the United States, in 1968. When he was 21, he dropped out of university to become a professional gambler in Las Vegas. As well as becoming a success at the poker table, he set up a fast-food franchise and has appeared on the big screen: in 2009 Hong Kong movie Poker King, as himself, and in a scene in the 1998 film Rounders, in which he is bluffed at the table by the main character, played by Matt Damon … 

 

The son of a stockbroker and a professor, Damon was encouraged to pursue acting by a friend living in the same Boston neighbourhood: Ben Affleck. Damon has been many men – and a surprising number of his characters have lent their name to their film’s title: Will Hunting (Good Will Hunting; written by Damon and Affleck), Tom Ripley (The Talented Mr Ripley), Jason Bourne (the Bourne trilogy), Will Grimm (The Brothers Grimm) and James Francis Ryan, in the Steven Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan …

 

The film follows a squad of American soldiers in France trying to find and repatriate the only one of four brothers not yet killed in the second world war. According to writer Robert Rodat, the film was inspired by his discovery of a monument to eight siblings who were killed in the American civil war. Among those to have expressed admiration for Saving Private Ryan have been filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and, according to a US diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks, President Xi Jinping.
 

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