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Lesson 3

When Camille Blanc dies a year or two later, in 1927, the old era, for all its new burst of energy, had less time to run than appearances suggested.  The gilded style was beginning its slow fade into the glitzy colours of the Far West.  Gambling was legalized in Nevada in 1931 and the focus of casino poker gambling gradually tilted to the new world, as new attractions and new games opened up over there.  The gambling halls of the Wild West, starting slowly, gathered pace through the next decade.  It was another burst of energy and gaiety, after the Second World War, which drove Americans in their millions to the tables.  The lessons so ably demonstrated by the Blanc's, Perez et fills, showed Las Vegas the way.

            Monte Carlo, of course, continued to cast its spell, even achieving an image of Hollywood glamour thanks to the dynastic marriage of Grace Kelly (star of ‘High Society’) with Prince Rainier.  But what would the Blanc's have made of the management of their great Societies des Bains de mer, and the lamentable losses in its salles des jeux in the 1980s?  it ’s not hard to imagine their surprise, to put it no more strongly than that.
            The usual explanation when a casino loses money is that fraud a going on.  After all, with the odds in the house’s favour, it should be virtually impossible to lose money, in the long run.  No such ugly rumours, however, disfigure monte Carlo’s reputation.  poker Crime in the principality hardly exists, one is assured, except as a police statistic.  The mafia operates in nearby Nice, where gangland killings are a commonplace; and indeed corruption was so widespread that Nice’s main surviving casino, the Ruhl, was shut down by the ministry of the Interior in 1982.

            Novelist Graham Greene has given a passionate indictment of the underworld in Nice in his polemic ‘Acuse (1982).  ‘Let me issue a warning, ’ he began, ‘to anyone who is tempted to settle for a peaceful life on what is called the Cote d’Azur.  Avoid the region of Nice which is the preserve of some of the most criminal organizations in the south of France: they deal in drugs; they have attempted with the connivance of high authorities to take over the casinos in the famous ‘war’ which left one victim, Agnes Le Roux, the daughter of the main owner of the Palais de la Mediterranee, ‘missing, believed murdered”.  They are involved in the building industry which helps to launder their illicit gains; they have close connections with the Italian Mafia.’  Mr Greene did not conceal a personal interest in the matter, in that he had befriended a French woman whose daughter was harassed by the mob, and who felt denied all chance of justice;  but his allegations evidently had much substance.
            The corruption in the ‘milieu ’ was so bad that all new applications to reopen a casino there had been a municipal casino in the Place Messana as well as the more glittery establishment in the Hotel Ruhl were successively turned down by the ministry until 1987.  The ban on casino gambling card game gaming in Nice left a huge gap in its entertainment resources, and to that extent was a direct benefit to Monte Carlo.  But to no avail.  The trouble with the SBM was internal, in the management ’s inability, in particular, to get to grips with the privileged and extravagant conditions of life of the croupiers.
            The croupiers have preserved many advantages down the years through which they enjoy an extraordinarily high standard of living.  Many are earning salaries of $ 100,000 a year, and certainly make more money than the transient gamblers so generously tossing them tips across the table – ‘Merci! Pour le personnel!’- when they have a winning coup.  The croupiers’ various perks and benefits are carefully graded down the ranks, from the directeur to sous-directeur to inspecteur to chef de table to the croupier who takes in the loser’s chips.  And nothing can be done to change this structure, according to the hapless management, because of the ‘historical weight ’ of tradition.  In Monte Carlo tradition is very important.

           What ’s more, in such a tiny place, a mile square, with a Monegasque population of only 4,000 the 200 croupiers employed at the casino represent a sizeable proportion of the electorate.  They have political clout to block any changes in the structure of the SBM which might be proposed in the parliamentary assembly.  On the contrary, they are in a position, year by year, to protect and improve their terms of employment.  There are many little benefits jealously preserved for instance, they like to be paid in cash, even though there is no income tax in the principality.
            The management ’s other problem is the changing nature of the gamblers themselves.  The grand joueurs, the big money players, demand more and more concessions in the way of ‘comps’ [complimentary services].  Favoured played in former days might be offered a suite at the Hotel de Paris.  Now they want first class tickets and free board for a wife or mistress, perhaps a second room for children.
  They can get away with such demands by claiming that if Monte Carlo won’t give it them, they know other casino which will.  Most of Month Carlo’s big players come from Italy.  In 1986, despite stricter controls, the SBM was spending 60m Francs on such services.  When the finance director complains this sum is far too high, the marketing director argues that it ’s the minimum required simply to maintain revenue.  Bully for the gamblers! (Blanc pere et fils’ viatique was granted only after the players had gone bust.)
            And what about Loews hotel-casino half a minute’s stroll in the moonlight down the hill?  On much the same turnover as the SBM, the casino has continued to rack up handsome profits from 16.7m francs in 1976, the first year of its operation, to 104.8m francs in 1985.  Total disbursement to the SBM by Loews casino in the decade was more than 260m francs,   or around $40m.  How wise Prince Rainer was (he has a businessman) to let the Americans in!

            Any casual visitor can see it once why Loews is a success.  Under a high starlit dome, the whole lay-out is easy, open and classless, Western-style.  No fuss, no fustian, no doors, players just step in from the hotel lobbies.  The same games are played, namely double-zero roulette and blackjack (but no baccarat or trente et quarante), with the accent on slot machines.  Probably the key difference from the SBM is that while the croupiers are local, they are not principally Mongasques: the ‘historical weight ’ has been airborne up the hill.
            One night I had the pleasure of dinning with Monsieur Pierre Cattalano, who has spent a life-time in the monte Carlo casino.  He can recall the halcyon days, the cloche hats and flat heels and boop-de-doop of the ‘30s, when he first joined the casino as a trainee croupier; the dark empty salons of the war years and the occupation.  He has had personal acquaintance with a great congregation of gamblers long gone, and has spent many, many nights as a tailleur or baccarat dealer.  He now surveys the passing scene as hot to a new generation of gamblers.
            ‘I admit it, I do feel nostalgic!’ he told me.  ‘It is very hard for the casino to beat the gamblers these days.  A man many come in for a night and win twenty thousand on the first shoe at baccarat and he will get up and leave.  Maybe he is flying to New York or London tomorrow.  He is not here to gamble.  In the old days people played to amuse themselves.  If someone like Lord Carnarvon or Lady Furness won on the first shoe, they would never dream of getting up.  “I am here for the fun of it, ” they would say.  People stayed for a month or two, not a weekend.  Now … ’ M. Cattalano shrugged, ‘well, look … you can see the difference.’
            Baccarat is a tough game for the house, because runs of luck by the players can wipe out the bank.  It happened in the baccarat game in Nice, before the casino was shut down.  (It was a perennial risk for François Blanc in Homburg.) But it is a less dangerous game for the casino than chemin de fer because if  a big loser at chemmy bounces a cheque, the house has already paid out the poker winner with its own money at baccarat, if a loser’s cheque is bad, then it is a pity, but the house has only paid him in plastic chips, M.Cattalano says the baccarat bank at Monte Carlo is never closed.  Around 90 coups are played in two shoes, so if thirty or forty or fifty thousand francs is bet on each coup, a lot of money is wagered over a session.

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