Fun in Monte Carlo

The Casinos of the Principality by the Sea Combine Glitz with Old-World Money and Charm
| By James Suckling | From George Burns, Winter 94/95

It was apparent that the two Americans didn't quite fit in at the crap table at the Sun Casino in Loews Hotel in Monte Carlo. While most of the players looked relaxed and informal with their open-collared shirts and slacks, the two men were wearing suits and ties--not to mention a slight, after-dinner glow following a great meal at the nearby world-famous restaurant, Louis XV. They gripped large Davidoff Dom Perignon cigars and periodically puffed them between bets.

"The princes have arrived," one of the table's dealers wisecracked condescendingly in French as he reached for the dice after one man threw craps. "Let them roll." Each took his turn at the dice, with very little success, but it didn't seem to bother either of them--their great cigars, combined with the excitement of gambling in the glitz of Monte Carlo, compensated for any bad luck. They obviously weren't going to let bad fortune get in the way of a good time.

Nevertheless, playing in one of three casinos in Monte Carlo during the off-season can be a trying experience for even the most veteran players, especially if they are more accustomed to the casinos of Las Vegas or Atlantic City. Not only can the unfamiliar language and attitudes of some employees be barriers to enjoying the experience, but one must also endure the strangeness of games in which the rules and odds are often so different that it can leave you cold only a few minutes after picking up your cards or throwing your dice. But perseverance pays off in the end.

Francis Palmaro, general director of the Monte Carlo casinos, says that clients will be disappointed in his gaming rooms if they're looking for the flamboyant, "buzzy" atmosphere of Las Vegas. "We have very few American clients, only about 2 percent of our annual total," he says, sitting in his office in the Casino de Monte Carlo. The casino is the main venue for serious players, although the Sun Casino and Café de Paris are also worth a visit. "Maybe they prefer Las Vegas; they probably feel better gambling at home. Our gambling in Monte Carlo is a traditional European experience."

To embrace this tradition with less difficulty, Palmaro offers some advice: "You must be relaxed. Remember, it's not like being back in the States. But if you have any problems or questions whatsoever, we have an organization of directors that are here to solve them and assure you that the games go well."

His employer, the company of Société des Bains de Mer (SBM), owns all the casinos in Monte Carlo and just about everything else in this tiny stopover along the Cote d'Azur in France. The principality of Monaco owns 69 percent of SBM. In 1992, the casinos brought in close to $219 million, an increase of about 7 percent from the year before. Gambling represents nearly three quarters of SBM's total annual turnover.

Of the three casinos, the Casino de Monte Carlo in the main square of the city accounts for most of SBM's annual turnover. Built in 1863, it was the first casino in Europe and remains one of the finest examples of Belle Epoque architecture in France. Its opulence and grandeur are breathtaking from the moment you walk into its marble-columned atrium and through to the cavernous Salle Renaissance.

The first gambling room is the glorious Salle Europe, with its eight massive Bohemian-glass candelabras. French roulette and 30 & 40 are primarily played there. The ambience is similar to the rest of the casino; it's discreet and quiet. Smart, dark suits or dinner jackets and elegant cocktail dresses are de rigueur. The hushed voices of players and dealers echo softly through the hall, with the occasional crack of balls rolling around roulette tables or chips passing across tables. Slot machines and other electronic games are available in adjacent rooms.

After the Salle Europe, you'll find yourself in the Salon Privé, which incorporates the Empire, Medecin and Touzet Salons. Unless you're staying at one of SBM's hotels or you're a guest of SBM, you'll have to pay a small entrance fee. The Salon Privé is larger than Salle Europe, and its gaming tables include baccarat, black jack, roulette, punto banco, Pai Gow poker and craps.

Roulette and baccarat are the most popular games; you might have to ask the management to open the black jack or craps tables if you wish to play. Those who desire an even more private environment should ask for the Salon Anglais, where high rollers are tucked away in a small, dark wood-paneled room to play quietly with friends or against the house.

"All I can say is that everyone can play at the casino," says Palmaro. "You can bet from 10 francs (about $1.80) to 10,000 francs (about $1,800). The biggest bets tend to be in roulette. The limits are 6,000 francs in public rooms and 10,000 francs in private ones. If you want to make large bets, it's preferable to go into a private room, although some of our big players like to stay in the public ones."

Palmaro estimates that about 60,000 players come to the casino each year, with an additional 200,000 or so visiting the others. The Monte Carlo Sporting Club also offers gambling during the summer. Tourists are the No. 1 group of players; people attending conventions are the second largest. And, of course, high-stakes players are also a factor.

Most of the casinos' customers either stay at the Hotel de Paris or Hotel Hermitage, if they don't have their own nearby accommodation. The top players stay as the casinos' guests. The Hotel de Paris is the better of the two hotels. Built in 1864, it is as lavish as it is congenial. With 66 luxurious rooms, its decor reflects much of the same gilded opulence of the casino next door. Service is impeccable.

The three-star restaurant at the Hotel de Paris alone is worth the expense of booking a room. The Louis XV restaurant with superchef Alain Ducasse and his team of cooks is one of the world's greatest dining experiences. It is not to be missed.

Rooms, however, are at a premium in July and August as well as during the Monte Carlo Volvo Open in April and the Grand Prix in May. SBM also organizes various events at the casinos, including tournaments for black jack, poker, roulette and even slot machines. So it's worth checking in advance about room availability.

The majority of the casinos' clients come for an evening out in Monte Carlo, which usually includes dinner, a show and gambling. Italians account for 80 percent of the gamblers in Monte Carlo, because it is less than 10 miles from the borders of Italy and France. The French are the second-largest group, with the rest originating from other European countries. "We have a very international crowd," he adds, "but very few Americans. They are good clients for Monte Carlo, but not really for gambling."

One way that Palmaro hopes to make his casinos more attractive to Americans is through changes made at the Café de Paris. About six years ago, SBM decided to expand the casino there. "We realized that we could create a kind of American casino in this space by transforming it into something similar to what you might find in Las Vegas," he says. "This allowed us to add not only gaming tables but different slot machines and video games."

There are nearly 14,000 square feet of gaming rooms packed with 400 machines, 10 to 12 blackjack tables, four to six roulette tables and a couple of crap tables. Walking through the loud, crowded area is reminiscent of Las Vegas, particularly those establishments attracting more down-at-the-heel customers. It seems more like a place to play slot machines, video black jack or electronic horses than serious card games, roulette or craps.

The Sun Casino is the best compromise between the eleganceof the casino and the slightly tacky ambience of the Café de Paris. Brighter and much more Atlantic City in style, the Sun Casino is located in the Loews Hotel, which, until recently, operated the entire casino there under a joint agreement with SBM. Gambling at Loews is less formal than at the casino even though it is quite luxurious. Most people play such American table games as black jack, punto banco, and craps; slot machines and electronic games are less popular.

Overall, table games still dominate the gambling scene in Monte Carlo despite the recent push in slot and electronic machines. "It's very simple," says Palmaro. "Europeans are more attracted to the classic European games such as roulette, 30 & 40, chemin de fer, baccarat. It's important to compare our turnover to Las Vegas. Seventy percent of our revenues come from table games, with the rest from machines, which in the States is quite the opposite."

The casinos of Monte Carlo certainly have a style of their own. Some may find them stuffy and foreign, while others may think them exciting and challenging. Whatever your views, they are great places to enjoy a fine cigar--even if you never pick up a card or throw the dice.