Ai Weiwei (Image courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden)

“Poet, Author, Exile, Blackjack King” — that’s how the gaming website describes Ai Weiwei. It so appears that besides being an internationally acclaimed Chinese dissident artist, Ai is also celebrated as a “Blackjack Guru” among card players. And we’re learning about this lesser-known side of the artist now because he is being sued by a casino worker in Germany whom he accused of showing a “Nazi attitude.”

The news about the lawsuit came from Ai himself in an opinion piece he wrote for the New York Times on Monday, January 13. The article discussed censorship, dictatorship, and the use of the term “cultural difference” as a euphemism to prejudice and xenophobia in Germany, China, and elsewhere.

As an introduction to his subject, Ai relayed that he received a notice about the lawsuit several weeks ago in Berlin, where his studio is based. “The complaint said I had called him a Nazi and a racist without any factual basis,” Ai wrote. “I had two weeks to present a written response, failing which I would be subject to punishment.”

The complaint led Ai to “prod” his memory to relay his story: About a year ago, he played cards at the Berlin Casino in Potsdamer Platz. After playing, he approached a cashier’s window and laid his chips on the counter for redemption. The clerk behind the window, according to the artist, said in English, “You should say please,” while pronouncing each word distinctly.

“What happens if I don’t?” Ai asked. “You’re in Europe, you know,” the clerk replied. “You should learn some manners.”

Ai recounted that he “found the comment irritating but not wholly strange,” saying, “Immigrants to Germany do hear such things.”

The artist pressed, “Fine, but you’re not a person who can teach me manners.”

The clerk then allegedly leaned forward, glared at Ai, and said, “Don’t forget that I’m feeding you!”

“That’s a Nazi attitude, and a racist comment,” he fired back at the clerk.

Ai continues to describe that he later received a “detailed apology,” thinking that the incident was over. That is until he received the complaint.

“I don’t know what will come of that complaint,” Ai wrote. “The casino clerk had cloaked his ethnic prejudice as a question of culture: Immigrants (whom we Germans are ‘saving’) should be learning European civilization.”

A little known fact about the dissident artist is his long-term affinity for gambling. Ai became a “legendary blackjack player” when he lived on the Lower East Side in New York City from 1981 to 1993. At that time, the artist made frequent trips to Atlantic City, where he was a “fully comp” customer (free suites, limos, dinners.) “Every few days a full stretch limo picked him up for the drive to the casino,” the explains.

In 2011, when Ai was detained by the Chinese authorities, the Blackjack community in the United States rallied around its esteemed member. Players even considered holding a series of fund-raising blackjack and poker tournaments to lobby the US government to impose trade sanctions against China if Ai is not released.

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