Alright, cards on the table: I’ve never been to a casino. I’ve bet at the races and I’ve shown no mercy in domestic games of snap. I’ve even dabbled in a bit of drunken pontoon. But I’ve never done it properly. So when we were invited to Grosvenor Casino in Newcastle to learn the basics, I could only hope the croupier would be ready for just how basic I am.
I decide to visit on a Wednesday evening, so it won’t be too busy for a learner. I’ve brought my more casino-experienced colleague Laura for moral support. We are greeted by our host, a friendly and experienced dealer called George, and we discuss our plans for the evening.
There are a surprising number of entertainment options, including live sports and slot machines. The real pull, however, is roulette, blackjack and poker. ‘Most people come for the theatre of it – they’ve seen casinos in the movies. It’s that James Bond thing,’ says George.
Besides, most pubs have slot machines, although to be fair, in the pub you might win £200 – here you might walk away with £15,000. When I ask George the most he’s seen someone win in a casino? ‘Half a million,’ he says plainly. I order a gin and tonic.
Our first destination is the roulette table. Instantly, a waiter appears and wordlessly sets a small table down beside me to hold my drink. The whole experience from service to gameplay is designed to appear completely seamless.
Everyone knows how you play roulette. The ball spins in the shiny wheel, lands on a number which is either red or black. If you’ve bet on black and it’s black, you’ve won. If you’ve bet on the exact number, you’ve won more. ‘It’s called the Devil’s Game because all the numbers add up to 666,’ says George.
George explains all the ways you can bet and gives us a stack of chips – he’s so experienced that he gathers a random stack, flicks away the chips he doesn’t need, and he magically has 20 in his hand, without having to count, or even look. Laura and I both automatically try to do the same. ‘I can’t fit 20 in my hand!’ laughs Laura.
This doesn’t prove to be a problem for long as we’re soon merrily losing chips, fast. It’s adrenaline-pumping stuff – and not just for the players. Every time the ball stops the dealer has seconds to decide who has won, and how much. ‘You need good mental arithmetic. You need to know your 17 times table,’ says George.
There is a six-week training school for dealers, some of whom were once trained by George. ‘It’s one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done,’ he says. ‘You see people grow. People who are a bit shy become different people afterwards.’ It’s not just mental arithmetic the trainee dealers need to master – they need to do their sums at the same time as watching for any misbehaviour, clearing the table of losing chips and keeping everyone entertained with a few tricks. Oh, and they also have to pay out in the right order – from lowest win to highest.
Sounds exhausting? ‘It is a job where you do need a lot of breaks!’ George admits. The staff can be working between 8 and 10-hour shifts. I wonder what the staff do when the club is quiet. ‘At all times you’re looking to improve your technique, so you’re practising.’ I notice him idly shuffling chips into colour-coordinated stacks as he talks. With one hand.
As more and more of my (thankfully valueless) chips disappear, I begin to wonder what happens when people lose real money and get upset. ‘Ninety-nine percent of disputes are worked out very quickly,’ says George. If there’s trouble, another member of staff may be alerted. The dealers don’t shout for each other though, ‘You kiss them over,’ says George. He demonstrates by making a loud kissing noise. Every dealer in the club looks up instantly.
It’s a strange new world I’ve found myself in – and one in which I’m not doing particularly well. As we move to the blackjack table I ask George how to improve my game. He explains that most people betting casually have no idea when the odds are against them; they go on intuition. But a counterintuitive system known as basic strategy will help you to, if not win big, then not lose quite so spectacularly.
Basic strategy tells you how you should behave for each hand you’re dealt, based on what the dealer has. Looking at the dealer’s first card, you use the strategy’s table (readily available on the internet) to work out what your move should be for your card. So if the dealer pulls 10 (and knowing my luck, they will) then you can use the table to see what you should do if you have 11 (generally, double your money, always twist on 11).
Actually, that’s another thing I learned – if you want any kind of cred at the table, watch your words. ‘If you want to sound like a novice, say stick!’ George jokes. You’re supposed to say ‘stand’ or ‘stay’, and one does not ‘twist’, but ‘card’. If you’re even more experienced you just give a sophisticated flick of the wrist for another card, or rap the table once to stick (sorry, stand).
Laura is really getting it now. ‘I’ve just got to trust the process,’ she says. She’s decided to follow basic strategy because I keep disregarding it and losing the hand. I’m a little inclined to stick with my gut though – if I play by basic strategy, am I really playing the game, or is basic strategy playing it for me? With that in mind, I twist (sorry, card) on 15. It’s a 10. Bust.
I’ve been a fairly bad pupil, but as George says, ‘It’s your game. The important thing is to enjoy yourself.’ We pester him to teach us a few show-off card moves. He teaches me to improve my shuffle (I tend to bend the cards mercilessly to do my bidding) and demonstrates how to gently spread the cards in an arc, then sweep them up again. I’m good at the spreading stage. Laura can sweep up. Between us, we’re almost equal to one far from adequate croupier.
We’ve been playing for a couple of hours, so we decide it’s probably time to step away before the real money starts calling. As we say our goodbyes, however, I am already considering my strategy for a return visit. The important thing is to enjoy yourself, and only lose what you’re prepared to lose. ‘At the end of the day, you’re here to have a good time,’ says George. And we have.