Whenever the notorious member of the 1940s Jewish-American mob, Bugsy Siegel, was stressed out over something, he would keep repeating to himself over and over, in a hoarse whisper, something that his father Max Siegelbaum, an emigre from Letychiv in Russia, had taught him to say to himself in order to calm his nerves – ‘Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.’

Most gamblers and risk-takers have this habit – of mumbling to themselves, nonsensical words or passages that are meaningless, when placing crucial bets like winner-take-all. So do champion athletes or stunt artists who do extreme sports. It is a way to keep the mind occupied and prevent panic from setting in.

Saying nonsensical gibberish does not in any way reduce the chances of reducing the odds against winning. It just sanitizes any doubts of success from creeping in, when the mind is trying to focus on the target. A classmate of mine in engineering school used to go, ‘dinga dinga nika nika, dinga dinga nika nika’ over and over while he walked to the terminal exam hall. Me, I concentrated on the center-spread of the Hustler I had under my mattress in the dorm.

In another setting, Bugsy Siegel would have made a fine CEO, so goal-oriented and absolutely committed and fearless was he. He looked after his own, rewarding competence lavishly. The story goes that once when he came back to his Hollywood mansion after a particularly tiring trip to the desert where he was building Las Vegas’s first casino, The Flamingo, he was dumbfounded by the terrific garden, lawns and landscaping that the gardener had carried out in his absence.
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Benjamin (Bugsy Siegel) – he developed a barren strip of the New Mexico desert with a $4million investment in a casino and that investment turned the strip into what is now known as Las Vegas, acknowledged as the leading tourism destination in America, with annual revenues from gambling and entertainment of over $100 billion.

The next morning when the old man arrived to continue with his landscaping, Bugsy was standing there on the steps with a bunch of keys in his hand and standing right in front was a gleaming new Cadillac convertible. He held the keys out and said, “You’re doing a terrific job, Joe. Here, this is yours. Go on, take the day off.”

Bugsy Siegel died in 1947, with a bullet in his brain, killed on the orders of his childhood friend, Jewish mobster, Meyer Lansky, because the mob suspected him of skimming from the mob-funded construction costs of The Flamingo. He had led a life of spectacular risk and the final one he took got him killed.

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Amerigo Vespucci (1454 – 1512), an Italian explorer, financier, navigator and cartographer, first demonstrated that Brazil and Argentina did not represent Asia’s eastern outskirts (as initially conjectured by Columbus), but instead constituted an entirely separate landmass hitherto unknown to Afro-Eurasians. Colloquially referred to as the New World, this second super continent came to be termed ‘America’, after him.

Around the same time that Vespucci was discovering the Americas, Portugese Ferdinand Magellan (1480 – 1521) organised an expedition to search for a westward route to a bunch of Pacific islands around Papua New Guinea that were then collectively known among Europeans as the ‘Spice Islands’.

Commanding a fleet of five vessels, he headed into the unknown – south through the Atlantic Ocean to Patagonia until he found a passage right at the southern tip of South America, a gateway that came to be known as The Strait of Magellan. Past the narrow strait, Magellan’s ships sailed into a vast body of water that he initially found quite placid, the calm waters driving him to name it the ‘peaceful sea’ – Pacific Ocean.

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Ferdinand Magellan’s route round the world

Magellan soon regretted his naming choice, buffeted by a series of typhoons and squalls (even a mutiny or two) as he headed further westward, until the expedition finally reached the Spice Islands in 1521 and returned home via the Indian Ocean to complete the first circumnavigation of the globe.

Magellan did not get to complete the entire voyage. He was shot through the heart with a poisoned arrow by the soldiers of the famed Philippino monarch, Lapu-Lapu, when he and his men made landfall on the island of Mactan in 1521. Like Gandhi in India, Lapu-Lapu’s statues are all over the Philippines today.

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Back in 1942, when the Second World War was still poised to go either way, the legendary German commander, Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, supreme commander of Germany’s Afrika Corps, took great pains getting to know his enemy, the British. He read up on the character traits and resumés of the opposing generals, including Field Marshal Montgomery, the commander of the Allied Forces’ 21st Army Group in North Africa.

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Rommel, in Tobruk, Libya, 1942(photo source: Wikimedia)

Often, in the heat of the skirmishes at El Alamein, Rommel braved barrages of flak and flew over the battlefield in a single-engined Fieseler Storch , in order to get a first-hand sense of the enemy’s preparations. Once, he even drove right through an allied forces base in his staff car, the Nazi Flag brazenly fluttering in the wind, the British soldiers gaping dumbfounded at the huge open-topped Mercedes Benz disappear over a rise leaving a billowing cloud of dust.

The personal risks that Rommel took were astonishing, though in the end, like Bugsy Siegel, Rommel perished taking the greatest risk of his life – supporting the 1944 plot to assassinate Hitler. He was lucky not to be strung up by piano wires like his late colleague, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Given his fame, he was supplied a capsule of Cyanide and forced to commit suicide.

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There have even been many who saw a goal and in order to achieve it, they deliberately sought out a back-against-the-wall situation of great personal risk. In this, the great Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortéz, founder-conqueror of Mexico and most of Central America, comes readily to mind.

Stationed in the Spanish Colony of Cuba in the early 1500s, 20-year old Hernie was an ambitious guy. As more experienced Spaniards sailed west from Cuba to explore the Yucatan Peninsula, he waited as one by one, they all seemed to disappear. Those who made it back, told horrific tales of being massacred by the native Aztecs and their habit of skinning foreigners alive and boiling their brains for supper.

Eventually his turn came and Cortéz was given 7 ships and 500 men and tasked with finding out what had happened to the others as well as to seek out the gold that they had all heard, existed in massive quantities over there. And if he could, he was told to lay the initial groundwork for a full-scale invasion – in the form of maybe a suitable harbor for the invasion fleet to land at and fresh water sources and stuff.

Hernán Cortéz was categorically forbidden to engage the Aztecs, since his boss, the Spanish Governor of Cuba, feared that he and his men would not last the encounter. They were to make it back in one piece, with or without the gold.

But the lad had far more ambitious plans. He got it into his head that he and his 500 fighters were enough to conquer the 150000 strong Aztec military machine. He made contact with their emperor and pretended to send friendly greetings to the sucker.

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Hernan Cortez meets the Aztec Emperor, Moctezuma II, trying his hand at an initial hearts-and-minds approach. (Photo source: Wikimedia)

Meanwhile, to ensure that his men would not get into the ships and scoot back to Cuba out of fright, once the shit hit the ceiling, Cortéz made an appallingly dangerous move. He spread the word that worms had eaten through the hulls of all the ships and that they were useless now. So saying, he had all 7 ships scuttled and now they had nowhere to go but forward, to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán.

The canny conquistador reasoned that, if he wanted to ram his way through to the Aztecs’ seat of power, his men would have to forget their wives and the sunny Guantanamo beaches and put in their desperate best, because failure meant being had for dinner. As boiled-brain pie. So they fought the fight of their lives and the rest is history.

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Something more than fame and money drove these men to risk everything, even their own lives, for the pursuit of exploration.

One of my colleagues at work, Stephane Periot, is a Frenchman who migrated from France. Stephane loves to go on treks into the wilderness – alone. His forte is not carrying anything other than dry foods that will last only the first day, a cigarette lighter, a GPS, a hunting knife and a sleeping bag. Last autumn he came back gaunt, battered and bruised, with one arm in a sling, after disappearing for twenty days, during which he faced down three bears and two separate packs of wolves.

Surviving in the Canadian wilderness is not for the fainthearted. But something drives Stephane to take such monumental risks. Is it a craving for recognition among his peers? Nah, Stephane never advertises his jaunts. A lack of self-esteem then? I doubt that. He is a poised well-balanced, happily married individual.

Or is it just curiosity – wanting to know if he could do it? I suppose it must be that. If so, Stephane won’t be the first. The great Alpinist, George Mallory, attempted the Everest in 1924 for exactly the same reason. When asked why he was so driven about the Everest, he famously replied,” Because it is there.”

Mallory was last seen negotiating a terrace on a cliff face at 28600ft, well known to Everest climbers as the Second Step, just a hundred meters from the summit. From there to the summit is a comparatively uneventful trudge and not particularly dangerous. However, somehow Mallory must have lost his footing, because his body was finally found in 1997 more than 2000 feet below that last known location. Many believe that he had actually made it to the summit and had slipped while descending.

That’s the thing about path-breakers – they like to die by the sword.