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Rolling the Dice in Paradise

High-stakes backgammon players flock to Monte Carlo to pit themselves against the competition and soak in the opulence
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

(continued from page 2)

Looking to make a big splash, the reigning forces here enlisted architect Charles Garnier (who was responsible for the very splendid Paris Opera House) and he came up with the era's equivalent of the Bellagio. Blowing away anything you might encounter in modern-day Vegas, Casino de Monte-Carlo has glass chandeliers, rococo ceilings and overhead frescoes so striking that they're almost as alluring as the games themselves. Without resorting to hyperbole, this casino really does feel like a palace.

In short order, the posh gambling den turned into a high society hotbed, drawing deep-pocketed customers from the wealthy precincts of Italy and France. Its reputation spread to the hoi polloi in 1892 when a notorious gambler by the name of Charles Wells won all the chips at a roulette table—apparently he found biases in the wheel—and inspired a popular song about the windfall. Smartly, the casino defined his feat as "breaking the bank" and played it up: after the last plastic orb went into Wells's pockets, a black cloth was dramatically placed over the table and it was pronounced dead.

These days, with biases harder to come by, a major draw for big players is Casino de Monte-Carlo's private gaming rooms, which are as elegant and ornate as the rest of the place. In grand style, they offer gambling's ultimate amenities: discretion and indulgence. If you are willing to play for 1,000 to 20,000 euros per hand at, say, blackjack, you essentially get a private party in a very fancy room. "You can do whatever you want in there," explains Jean-Marc Noaro, general manager of gaming for Casino de Monte-Carlo. "There was one guy who lost a lot of money. He climbed up on the table and began stomping around on the felt. What can you say about that? You can say nothing."

Not expecting to provide such an uninhibited display, I decide to give the famed Casino de Monte-Carlo a whirl and put some of my own hard-earned cash on the line. Unlike American casinos, you have to pay an admission fee to get in (10 euros) but, also unlike American casinos, you feel as if you are playing in a museum of gambling. A display of handcrafted vintage slot machines dominates a side of the room near the entrance. Century-old photos, propped inside a display case, capture the early days of the casino and, if you can look past a relaxed dress code, it is easy to time-trip back to Monte Carlo's Belle Epoque glory days.

As for the gaming itself, it feels distinctly different from that in the United States. Dealers and pit personnel are solemn, players remain emotionless even as they endure roller-coaster swings, and it's not unusual for a sommelier to decant bottles of vintage wine for customers in mid-gamble. Player cards—which track play and comps in the States—are nonexistent here, making the whole process feel a bit more gentlemanly.

The games have their unique quirks as well. Here the roulette wheel has one zero instead of two (an advantage for the players), tuxedoed croupiers run the games with an appealing bit of flare, and chemin de fer and punto banco (variations on baccarat) are both on offer. As for the blackjack, frankly, it is not very good, at least from the perspective of a player hoping to find an edge. Standard blackjack minimums are higher and maximums are lower than the Vegas norm, rules are similar to those in Atlantic City (no surrender, no re-splitting aces), and the dealer doesn't take his down card until everybody has played out his hand. Worst of all, if you are playing two spots and the table is full, a new player who wants to get in can steal your extra spot. And, take it from me, when things are running well, that is not very gentlemanly.

Despite all of that, the experience is enjoyable, the sense of history is palpable, and playing in Monte Carlo is something that every serious gambler should do at least once in his life, if only to experience what it feels like to be a mini—James Bond.

Like a lot of gambling ventures, my run at the blackjack table here starts off fairly well, as a Russian guy and I seem unable to lose. But when things get ugly, they really get ugly, and our downfall is punctuated by his beautiful blonde girlfriend sipping Bordeaux and continually, spookily murmuring, "Forget it. There is nothing here for you. Go away. Go. Before you lose it all."

After my bankroll takes a modest and very polite beating (don't worry, I get 'em back a day later), I leave the Russians, stash my remaining cash in the room safe next door at Hotel de Paris, and spend a few minutes admiring the Ferraris, Maybachs and Maseratis that get to seem weirdly commonplace in the manicured drive-ups here. Then, after filling my quota of gawking, I decide to hop a cab across town to Jimmy'z, a venerable time capsule of a 1970s disco. When I tell the taxi valet that I need a cab, he directs me toward a waiting Bentley.

"How much is this going to cost me?" I want to know.

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