Gambling? I admit I do like an occasional flutter. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t mean I’m riddled with vice, you know. I don’t frequent brothels; I’m not addicted to painkillers; I don’t keep an emergency can of Tennent’s Super in my glove compartment; I just like to place the odd bet, that’s all. Get off my case!
Of course, gambling comes in many forms. If we’re talking about putting 50p each way on Old Merrylegs at the Grand National, then I think most of us can relate. As for the football pools, the national lottery and pub fruit machines, well I’m not really into any of that. My thing is casinos — specifically casinos in far-away places.
Something about being abroad brings out the gambler in me. But before anyone imagines me in a faded tux with loose bow tie, frittering away my baby daughter’s future in a Vegas vice den, let me bring it back to earth with a qualification: when I visit a casino, I’m generally not too concerned about winning money.
Yes, I like the idea of swaggering back to my hotel room with pockets full of foreign currency — who wouldn’t? But that’s not really what it’s all about. For me, casinos are just exciting places, and once I’ve walked through the door and bought my chips, my objective is simply to stick around for as long as humanely possible.
To help me achieve this, I’ve got a foolproof system. Firstly, I select an amount I’m willing to part with — let’s say £40. Having decided this is money I can just about do without (well I am on holiday, after all), I then set about losing it as slowly as possible. I make my way to the pontoon table, place a few small bets, join some hands, sit some out, and generally soak up the atmosphere — while all the time being plied with all the free booze and snacks the house is willing to provide.
I keep this going until one of two things has happened: either I’ve frittered away all my money, in which case I then bid everyone adieu and stumble gracefully up to bed; or I’ve amassed a tidy profit. If it’s the latter, we then enter phase two of my system, which involves sauntering over to the roulette table and putting absolutely everything I’ve earned that night on red.
Now, there’s a 50:50 chance I might lose out here. But whatever happens, the absolute worst outcome is I lose my original stake of £40 — and as I’d already resigned myself to this at the start of the evening, this is no tragedy. Conversely, if the pontoon goes well (which it often does), and the roulette spin goes my way (which it sometimes does), there’s a chance I just might walk out of there with an unexpected windfall. And, either way, I’ll have enjoyed myself immensely.
This system works best when there’s a group of you and you’re all of the same mind. This is when memorable nights are made — the camaraderie at the pontoon table, the stream of cocktails, the genuine excitement when someone actually manages to double their money. Then, when it’s all over, you emerge into the dawn air in a strange town and reflect on a fun night’s work.
Two of my most treasured nights of travelling were spent in casinos; the first in Puerto Rico, where a hilarious Irish millionaire befriended my group and kept us afloat when the chips were low; and the second in Kathmandu, where an incompetent blackjack dealer helped me make a stack, before a few lucky spins turned it into a packet.
It’s true, casinos bring out the savage in some. For others, they’re places to fear and avoid. But there’s a lot of sane fun to be had, and you needn’t bankrupt yourself in the process. So next time you’re on your travels, and you find yourself outside a casino with £40 to spare, nip in and give my system a whirl. I’ll bet you anything you’ll enjoy yourself.
Of course, you could just go back to your hotel room and hope you’re not missing out. But isn’t that a bit of a gamble?
Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)