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The Full Monte

Ready to be seduced by the bright lights of Vegas’ Of course not. The betting man in the know heads for decidedly more elegant surroundings.

There’s something indescribably foolish about gambling ‘ but something irresistible and even quite attractive about it, too. The odds of anyone actually winning the ‘125 million Euromillions lottery earlier this year were impossibly long ‘ similar to playing roulette on a wheel the size of the M25, according to one report. But, on the other hand, somebody had to win it, plus the stake was so minimal that millions of us had to give it a go.

Then again there’s the sheer excitement and romance of the whole enterprise, inspired by the image of the young John Aspinall keeping one step ahead of the cops by moving his floating chemmy parties from one smart Belgravia address to another. Eventually, the 1960 Gaming Act was brought in to thwart such a wheeze, and was promptly nicknamed Aspinall’s Law.

Then there’s the classic James Bond scene of sophisticated, suave if occasionally swarthy men in black ties thronging the salles priv’es at Royal-les-Eaux or Monte Carlo, the chink of 100,000-franc chips hitting the green baize providing the soundtrack to a winning combination of glamour, triumph and disaster. Or even, if one goes back another 250 years, of young, powdered noblemen risking everything at Hazard or Faro in the clubs and coffee houses of St James’s.

On a roll
Of course, the reality of the high-stakes game has always had a more sinister aspect to it. More often than not those same toffs came unstuck in a big way, like the 18th-century Yorkshire baronet Sir John Bland who ‘died at his own hand’ after losing ‘32,000 in a single night. Similarly, the police eventually caught up with Aspinall, charging him with ‘keeping a common gaming house’. His mother, Lady Osborne, famously told the arresting officer: ‘Young man, there was nothing common in this house until you walked into it!’

Even 007’s creator tacitly acknowledged the downside to the operation with one of the most famous opening lines of the time: ‘The scent and smoke and sweat of a casino are nauseating at three in the morning.’ Not surprisingly, modern gambling has a cleaner image. Thus Lotto is just a harmless flutter; the upside a small but still perceptible chance that one might win. If not, well, at least some of the money goes to good causes. But even this hardly comes close to explaining why, as a pastime, gambling of all sorts is currently on such a roll.

Certainly, with more than $240 billion being staked last year, there’s no doubt gambling is more popular than ever. However, as shown by Government figures, 2005 was a record year for personal bankruptcies in the UK. Any gambler will tell you not to bet any more than you can afford to lose.

A little flutter
At the same time that Lotto has been making gamblers of us all ‘ nearly everyone has tried it ‘ in the high street, so we are told, the whole world’s bingo mad. And clearly many of the racecourses are still pulling in the punters, offering the traditional glamour of a day at Lingfield or a good-value evening out at the dogs for the whole family with burgers, chips and a cheap bet on the Tote before you catch the night bus home.

Whether it’s Glorious Goodwood or the Walthamstow dogs, people go mostly for the atmosphere and the buzz, and the gambling is nearly incidental. After all, betting 50p on Dog No.4 is not going to make anyone’s fortune, any more than are all those housewives laying out a fiver on the well-flagged favourite for the Grand National. But closer to home, real gambling is increasingly becoming the main event, not least one suspects because these days you can do it surrounded by the comfort, scent, smoke and so on of your own front room.

We’re talking here about online gambling, one of the few industries to have really taken off in recent years. Indeed, spurred on by an incredible, fast-growing interest in poker, it looks set to become a permanent feature of the digital landscape with around four million Brits having a go in a given month. Google lists more than 32 million relevant websites.

These businesses are genuine 24/7 operations and indeed the other advantages over conventional, casino based games are not hard to discern. For one thing, you don’t have to fly down to Deauville, put on a black tie, or tip anyone on the way out after that keenly awaited monster win. Admittedly you’ll have to mix your own dry Martinis while you’re playing, and you’re unlikely to form a sudden, close alliance with anyone called Fatima Blush, Kissy Suzuki or Plenty O’Toole. But on balance, most punters seem reasonably happy with arrangements, even if we can’t really see Daniel Craig logging on during his forthcoming James Bond adventure.

Full mouse
It’s very easy to play too, online casinos typically being Java-based and requiring little in the way of plug-ins so they will run on most home computers. Amazingly many give players instant bonuses ‘ effectively free money with which one can ‘test’ the wide variety of different games they offer. After all, unlike the Vegas palaces, they don’t have to pay for buildings, staff, or perks and suites for the high rollers. Thereafter paying for playing is easy too, either by using a normal credit card or by arranging it through PayPal as you would on eBay.

And you will need to pay, because, as with the real, bricks-and-mortar establishments, these virtual casinos take in considerably more money than they pay out. Even so, should you get a big win online ‘ one maths student at Oxford claims to have won ‘40,000 last year ‘ chances are you’ll want to spend some of it doing the job properly, which is to say by doing it in a real casino.

Probably not at the famous Casino Royale at Royal-les-Eaux, which Ian Fleming merely invented for the book. Probably not at Monte Carlo either, if only because the principality of Monaco is, when all’s said and done, just about the biggest disappointment on the Riviera. Approaching it from the air, the place looks like Benidorm, all beige apartment blocks and nowhere to park. Close to, it’s still the same, only absurdly more expensive and, unless you have millions to lose, about as welcoming as an overweight nightclub doorman with a broken finger.

So, Vegas then’ Well, not really there, either. Saying that, everyone should go to Las Vegas once and not just because being there is like being in a hundred great road movies. So tacky it’s brilliant, and so full-on that it’s hard not to have a great time, there’s actually something about the way Americans do things so blatantly to the max that makes a trip down the Strip hard to resist. A trillion light bulbs per mile, pyramids bigger than the real thing, Venice bigger than the real Venice, rows of one-armed bandits (and Elvis impersonators) stretching to infinity ‘ as a Brit, one quickly realises that while Blackpool’s tacky, this is clearly superglue territory.

High rollers
What Las Vegas is not though, is smart. Nowhere near it. The big players do play here in showcase events from time to time, but you’re unlikely to be able to watch, let alone pitch in against them. Instead, when it comes to gambling offshore, the smart money has been moving to Macau.

Absorbed back into China in 1999, much like Hong Kong, the former Portuguese colony’s rapidly growing status in the gambling world started with the termination of the gambling monopoly held for 40 years by the Sociedade de Turismo e Diversoes de Macau, or STDM. Cash quickly flooded in from outside investors and entrepreneurs, including the late Kerry Packer, ex-STDM controller and casino tycoon Stanley Ho ‘ whose diverse interests at one point accounted for a staggering two-thirds of the colony’s entire GDP ‘ and the Las Vegas-based Wynn Resorts group.

Gamblers from Hong Kong suddenly found themselves with an incredible choice of casinos, and not only the old smoke-filled ones they were used to but a new $240 million Las Vegas Sands, and others operated by MGM-Mirage and Park Hyatt Hotels. Luxurious hotels, lavish food, tar-studded entertainment ‘ Macau is clearly on the map. It wants your money and is happy to help you spend it…

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