Le Sporting

WRITING - The Vegas Guy

-- Fireworks over the yacht harbor, Julio Iglesias warbling in the open-air theater, superchef Alain Ducasse preparing meals on an outdoor terrace overlooking the Mediterranean--it doesn't get more chic than this in the European holiday month of August. The supermodels are dancing till dawn at Jimmy'z--the Studio 54 of the Riviera--but you'll look in vain for a high-roller at the Casino of Monte-Carlo.

For two months in the summer, all the action moves one kilometer down the coast to "Le Sporting," or the Sporting Club, the combination amphitheater/casino/restaurant/disco where it's possible to experience all of the above without ever leaving the building or soiling your patent leather evening slippers.

Julio Iglesias, for some reason, is the patron saint of summertime European festivals, even though Americans are likely to puzzle over his adulation the same way they regard the French worship of Jerry Lewis. When Julio sings in Spanish, Italian or French, he sounds like the most suave, urbane, passionate crooner in the world. But he does half his show in English, with a brassy sax player backing him up, resulting in what sounds like a cross between Ricky Ricardo at the Copa and Garrett Morris saying "Bessball been very very good to me." In one particularly frightening moment, he attacks the Patsy Cline standard "Crazy," resulting in a global multi-cultural moment that we could best do without. Still, the mostly European audience in the Salle des Etoiles, a roofless supper-club amphitheater with floor-to- ceiling windows overlooking the moonlit sea, clap along and thrill to every number, even rising occasionally to do a sort of stiff-necked Tom Jones boogie. "This is as wild as it ever gets here," explains my hostess, a spokesman for the Societe des Bains de Mer, the state-controlled corporation that has run all the gambling and most of the resort facilities here for the past 138 years. "They never stand up."

Such hedonistic displays are optional in Monte-Carlo, but elegance is essential. As the dance band comes on after Julio, the bejeweled women and their escorts in $5,000 Italian suits file out of the Salle des Etoiles and head for the striking contemporary "Le Sporting" casino in another part of the complex. Since 1974, when Prince Rainier III and Princess Grace dedicated the Sporting Club with a gala headlined by Josephine Baker, this marble and blond-wood gaming area has been a playpen for the nouveau riche as well as those who like to watch them. The last bet is placed at 6 a.m., although even that is not a hard fast rule.

"I know my players," says William "Billy" Ray, the Englishman who hosts the gamblers and attends to their needs. "And as long as I see a real player remaining, the kitchen stays open and so does everything else."

The most popular game is roulette (the single zero variety, of course, like all European wheels), and close behind is chemin- de-fer. Unlike American baccarat, the chemin-de-fer players actually pass the shoe around the table, with each person taking his turn as banker. And the banker is forced to match the bets of the other competitors. "We call that a man's game," says Ray. "You might start with 10,000 francs, but that quickly becomes a 20,000 bet, then 40, then 80, then 160. It takes nerves to play here."

But if you happen to lose that 160,000-franc bet, you can always go next door to Bar & Boeuf, the only outdoor Michelin five-star restaurant in existence. (Alain Ducasse, of Paris and New York fame, resides there ten weeks in the summer.) Or, better yet, you can take a break in the Havana cigar parlor at Jimmy'z dance club, the creation of Parisian entertainer Regine. (Club world royalty, like their princely counterparts, have single names.) Eventually, though, even the sight of drop-dead gorgeous models grooving to Ricky Martin pales in comparison to the heady action back at the tables. The slot machines, a concession to Americans, are kept in a separate room, away from the main salon, so the only sounds are created by the chatter of the players, the whir of the wheel, and the intoxicating sound of chips and cards being pushed across soft felt.

With the exception of Las Vegas, there is no city in the world more identified with gambling than Monaco, and the place is full of tales of lost fortunes and fabulous winnings that have become legends and then virtual myths. The real stories are, of course, never to be told, because casino personnel zealously guard the privacy of their clients. (Most European high-rollers want to spend their money secretly.) With such a reputation, you would think that the place would be flush with "whales," the thousand or so top gamblers in the world so sought after by the casinos of Macao, Malaysia, Australia, and by big Vegas players like the MGM Grand, Caesars Palace and Bellagio. (The traditional definition of a "whale" is a player who bets at least a million dollars every time he sits down at the table.)

But, in fact, the whales don't come to Monaco. "The reason is simple," says Billy Ray. "First of all, French casinos have a tax that can be as high as 15 per cent, whereas the Las Vegas casinos pay closer to 5. But more important, we're required by French law to pay tax on all gambling winnings, even if we can't collect the debt. If a gambler spends $600,000 more than he has, then goes bankrupt, we still pay the tax on the $600,000 even though we never see the money. Compare this to Las Vegas, where the casino comforts a big loser by refunding 15 per cent of his losses. We're not allowed to do that. So we're at a 20 to 25 per cent disadvantage compared to those firms."

Still, the casinos at Monte-Carlo do maintain a private fleet of jets, and they will pick up a serious gambler anywhere in the world. (Lately, for example, they've made inroads into Argentina, Egypt and Brazil.) Those players are fully aware that Monte-Carlo never discounts gambling debts, yet they come anyway, many hoping to "break the bank."

Alas, the many stories of "breaking the bank at Monte Carlo" turn out to be as ephemeral as the famous demimondes who have come and gone over the years. I once saw an article listing 23 people who had broken the bank over the years, but the casino says it's an expression from the 19th century that doesn't really have any practical meaning today.

The legend was born on July 19, 1891, when a short, bald- headed Cockney Londoner named Charlie Wells walked into the casino and charmed everyone with his jokes and entertaining banter. He proceeded to gamble 11 straight hours and walked away with what, in today's terms, would be about $350,000. The next day he came back and did the same thing. The third day his luck changed for the worse, but he still recouped his losses and went back to London with enough freshly won money to become a man about town, tipping lavishly, fitting himself out in extravagant evening dress, hitting the restaurants, bars and theaters of the town in a manner that eventually inspired a popular music-hall ditty:

"I walked along the Bois de Boulogne

"With an independent air . . .

"You can see the girls who turn and stare . . .

"And say, 'He must be a millionaire' . . .

"'Hey,' they sigh, and wink the other eye . . .

"And say, 'He's the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.'"

In fact, what had happened is that the casino at that time had a "bank" of gold francs at every table. When the coins ran out--a very infrequent event--the casino staged a grand ceremony in which a black cover was placed over the table, like a funeral shroud, and uniformed guards marched up with a supply of gold to christen a new table. The other bettors would, of course, be heartened by the pageantry and continue to gamble.

In fact, Charlie Wells turned out to be little more than a small-time crook. After losing most of his money on an invention called a "musical skipping rope," he turned up again in Monaco in 1892 with a yacht that he claimed had a revolutionary fuel-saving system. He ostensibly came to sell the fuel system to yacht owners, but in fact he spent all his time at the casino, and when his luck ran out, he cabled to his financial backers in London for more money. He lost it all and was eventually arrested in Le Havre for fraud. He served two eight-year terms in prison, including one for a separate fraud, then showed up in Paris, promoting a scheme in which you take money from investors at high rates of interest, pay off the first investors, and then flee before the later investors ask to be paid. Apparently he never did any more prison time, and died a fairly wealthy man, in Paris, in 1929.

"It's, of course, impossible to actually break the bank," says Billy Ray with a laugh. But I look over his shoulder, to the buzz and hum of the gaming area, and I can see at least 80 people determined to try anyway.

Theme: Elegance
Opened: 1874
Total Investment: The principality of Monaco, 69 per cent owner, guards its financial information.
Known For: Jet-setters, wannabe jet-setters
Marketing niche: International tourists, especially Italians.
Gambler's Intensity: High
Cocktail speed: Rapid
Dealers: Amiable
Bosses: Amiable
Tables: 25
Slots: 51
Rooms: Le Meridien, the only hotel in Monaco with its own
beach, is next door.
Surrounding area: An artificial jetty, complete with its own lavish lagoon and gardens.
Overall rating: 99
Joe Bob's bankroll: Up $27 after an hour of French roulette: total to date: -$78


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