Outside the Casino of Monte-Carlo, clustered around the fountain like gawkers at a traffic accident, are 50 or 60 backpackers and tourists, most of them American, staring toward the grand marbled steps of the world's most beautiful gambling palace, waiting, chattering, looking for . . . what?
"They're here every day. They're hoping to see someone famous," explains Claudia Kozma, spokesman for Societe des Bains de Mer, the French company which has held the monopoly on gambling here since the 19th century.
So why don't they go inside? I ask.
"We don't know," she says.
Occasionally someone will venture toward the green-jacketed security officers who hover around the entrance like eagle-eyed sentries, but inevitably they'll ask a single question and turn back to their vigil in the late summer heat, which can become fairly oppressive even on the fabled Riviera.
The casino of Monte-Carlo is, in fact, so grandiose--it's like gambling in the Louvre, complete with the eerie shuffling silence of museums--that it actually intimidates people. To get to the main gambling rooms, you must first pass through a huge atrium flanked by 28 marble columns, present your passport for inspection, walk through the Renaissance Salon, where drinks are served by impeccable gentlemen in white jackets, and thence to the Salon de l'Europe, which may be the single most famous gaming room in the world. Only two games are played there--French-style roulette and "Trente et Quarante"--and, even though the minimum bet is only 20 francs, or about three dollars, it's not uncommon to stand next to someone wagering $100,000 on each spin of the wheel.
For the first 136 years of its existence, the casino required coats and ties for men, dresses for ladies, and had gendarmes stationed outside to fend off the riffraff. That rule was abolished two years ago, mostly for public relations reasons. "We were turning too many people away," explains William "Billy" Ray, the charming Englishman who hosts high-rollers and is a walking library of Monte Carlo history. "So many tourists come here. The times had changed. Of course, when I see that . . ."
He gestures toward two young men, wearing loose T-shirts, baggy shorts and tennis shoes.
". . . I still flinch a little bit."
Is it a palace? Is it a museum? Is it the residenceof the king? Oh, pardon me, it's the casino. The Casino of Monte-Carlo. I was actually disappointed to find the dress code abolished--I like to think there's still one James Bond-style casino left in the world, or at least a place where the Rat Pack would feel at home--but the French have been ingenious about preserving the character of the casino in spite of fashion trends. The casino is a series of grand Belle Epoque salons that become progressively more exclusive the father back you travel. To get into the "Salons Prives"--two galleries beyond the Salon de l'Europe--you must pay 50 francs and wear a coat and tie. To reach the "Salle Medecin," a gorgeous atrium in the farthest reaches of the casino, you must be invited. And for those very special guests, there's the "Super Prive" or the "Touzet" salons, where the casino entertains very wealthy, very secretive gamblers who are allowed to bring only a single guest and can be admitted by a private entrance. (Sorry to disappoint the gawkers out by the fountain, but your chances of seeing Roger Moore are nil.)
The owners have made a few accommodations for Americans in recent years. Two of the salons and a small room off the atrium have been turned into slot-machine areas, including the old cabaret, where the ceiling is decorated with angels smoking cigars. (Oddly enough, the casino, when it opened in 1863, was non-smoking, and smokers had to retire to the "Salon Fume"--used today as the buffet. Now the only complaints about smoking come from fussy Americans, much to the amusement of the staff.)
Twenty years ago the casino had devoted one of its grand rooms to slots and American games, in what it called the Salle des Ameriques. The hall is still there--it has an interesting slot-machine historical exhibit--but casino director Francis Palmaro decided the slots atmosphere was just not in keeping with the traditions of Monte-Carlo. The same company now owns three other Monaco casinos where slots are prominent, encouraging the Americans to go there and leave the main casino as the Temple of Table Games it's always been.
"The Italians are the greatest table-game players in the world," says Billy Ray, my tour guide and a former chemin-de-fer dealer himself. "The French are close behind. Europeans love table games. I don't think the customer has changed so much. I think that, because of the profit margins on slot machines, it's the casino companies who have changed the customer."
For me the most fascinating game played in Europe is all but unknown in the states. Called "Banque a Deux Tableaux," it consists of two chemin-de-fer tables joined together, with a dealer at the center on one side, a croupier on the other, and an inspector hovering around the edges to make sure the bets are proper. Sixteen people play against the dealer, who deals one hand to each table and then one hand to himself. He must then use that hand to play against both sides. Obviously we're into some serious mathematics here. His decision as to whether to draw to a five, for example, is influenced mainly by how much is bet on the respective tables. If one table holds $600,000 in chips and the other only $100,000, he must compute the short table's odds at one-sixth and then run it through a computer--his brain--to determine the true odds for his money. He must do this in less than one second.
What makes it more interesting is that the dealer of this game is the only casino employee in the world who must make actual judgment calls--based on the size of the pots, the character of the players, and the odds--that can make million- dollar differences in amounts won and lost. The house advantage is technically 1.32 per cent, but that can change according to the whims, habits and aggressive play of 16 people. The dealer's salary is based on a percentage of the casino's win, and the casino is forbidden by law from influencing his decisions.
"There are actually about 200 mathematical formulas that must be memorized," said Billy Ray. "I used to re-memorize 20 of them every day before I came to work. I would work out especially thorny math problems and then try to solve them quickly. Because you have no time. As soon as the table is ready, you must take a card or pass. The sessions last two hours, and when you finish, you're exhausted. Someone could say to you 'What's nine plus two?' and you wouldn't know the answer. But it's the most exciting job in the world. You're not just hitting 16 and staying on 17. You're actually gambling."
I asked him if dealing the game was considered one of the more desirable jobs in the casino.
"Well, it's a moot point," he says. "There are only 12 people in Europe capable of dealing it. Unfortunately, it's a dying game. I doubt that we'll see it anymore in three or four years."
Yes, even Monte Carlo must enter the 21st century. Sometime very soon a convoy of trucks will leave Paris, carrying 3200 tons of new chips. By the end of the year all bets at the casino will be in Eurodollars. For the first time in 138 years, there will be no francs on the table at Monte Carlo. Even the Americans will know exactly how much they're betting--assuming they decide at last to actually go inside.
CASINO DE MONTE-CARLO
Total Investment: Only Prince Charles III knows
Known For: Being the oldest European casino, and the only one with its own opera house, an exact replica of the Paris Opera House, where Diaghilev founded the Ballet Russe
Marketing niche: High-rollers, international tourists, most of them from Europe and South America.
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: Rapid
Dealers: Stone-faced and impeccably correct
Rooms: The most elegant guests stay next door at the Hotel de Paris, grandest hotel in Monaco, owned by the same company.
Surrounding area: The most exclusive part of Monaco, full of sidewalk cafes, terraced gardens, and shops for the ultra-rich. At the nearby Cafe Paris, the casino maintains slot machines and American games.
Overall rating: 100
Joe Bob's bankroll: Down $134 after an hour of chemin-de-fer: total to date: -$105