And so after dinner at The Windsor hotel we strolled for the last time along the Promenade des Anglais towards the venue of our final night in Nice – the Casino Ruhl.
Sarah, excited to be stepping foot inside a gambling house for the first time, examined my denims.
“Tom, do you think you’re dressed appropriately? Don’t you need a tie at least?”
“As long as I’m not naked and I have some cash, they’ll let me in, don’t worry.”
If the gaudy lights and red carpet outside the Casino Ruhl were an attempt at sophistication and glamour, they failed. The Casino’s facade was tack, brash, at odds with the rest of the City. It was as though, half apologetically, the casino was trying to ape its natural counterparts in Las Vegas. Up close, the red carpet and decorations had a tired, end of the pier look, as though the casino was saying, ok we know the whole thing is seedy, but come in any way and hand over your money.
At the kiosk we showed our passports ( a sop to money laundering) and headed to the bar.
My first surprise was the cost of the drinks. Not only were they not free (ok I’m no high roller) – they were eye-wateringly expensive.
We sauntered past the slot machines – big heavy-duty machines each with their own leather chair bolted to the floor – and headed for the tables for a game of 21.
I slipped into a seat next to a leathery looking man in his sixties. The croupier wordlessly slipped him two cards. Lifting the corners, he glanced at their value and tossed a couple of chips at the dealer. A sour faced woman in her early thirties, dressed entirely in black, she wordlessly tidied his stake and awaited instructions.
With a micro tap of his index finger the man requested another card. The croupier snapped a card on top of the existing hand, this time face up. A pause, then with a tiny shake of the head he indicated that he was happy with his position. The croupier then turned over her own two cards. A Jack and a two. Without hesitating she slipped a third card from her shoe and snapped it perfectly on-top of her existing pair. Seven of hearts. So to beat the house our friend with the grey slicked back hair and gnarled fingers needed twenty or twenty-one. He flung his hand away and cursed under his breath while the croupier scooped the chips into a round little hole to her left, a hopper containing the broken dreams of a thousand gamblers.
The next hand began. Now as well as the two cards dealt to my friend on my right, I was given my own pair. Mimicking the pro, I lifted the corners. An ace and a three! Immediately I panicked, whenever I played pontoon at home on the carpet in front of the fire with my older brother (the last time I’d actually played the game) an Ace had the twin values of either eleven or one. The embarrassment of ploughing on with card after card when I was already bust was terrifying. What should I do? Sarah, toying with her hair and looking around to see if anyone had noticed that she was hanging round with the Cincinnati Kid, waited for my shrewd gambling decision. I nodded for another card. The croupier turned over a three. So now I had seventeen (or possibly seven).
I decided to stick, as did my fellow player. The croupier flipped over her hand – a five and a ten. She flipped over another – a nine. She was bust! My ten euros were now twenty! I was a winner, I was a success! I turned to my comrade in arms, hoping for a high-five of victory, but he didn’t look up, instead he growled the same curse that he had uttered when he lost the previous hand.
Flushed with success I decided to transfer my fantastic winning streak to the roulette table. This time the table was surrounded by punters. We bought twenty Euros of single white chips and played red or black. At one point I had doubled my money. My head told me to walk away. But of course I didn’t. Six minute later I was five euros down. We decided to play on the numbers part of the baize. Casually, I threw a chip onto number 33, I reckoned that one last throw might bring us a jackpot.
Sarah shrugged her shoulders, assuming that I knew what I was doing. The croupier, a young man with a thick-set forehead and sallow cheeks watched me place my bet, then disdainfully throwing my stake back at me!
Sarah whispered, “Why is he doing that?”
To which I replied. “I’ve got no fucking idea.”
Obviously there was some unknown gambling protocol that I had failed to adhere to.
Realising that really, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing, we decided to people watch.
The pontoon guy had sauntered over to the roulette table. He was doing his same stern-faced curse at the result of every spin. Then I spotted a very glamorous lady playing the wheel.
Around forty, she wore an expensive, multi coloured blouse and white designer jeans. I deferred to Sarah for an estimation of the quality. She confirmed that they were very expensive clothes. Then the ice. She wore three diamond rings, the most impressive of which was on her engagement finger, a luminescent stone with an internal fire that shone even in the subdued lighting of the casino. Wearing the same surly look as my pontoon friend, she peeled off one €50 note after another from an ever reducing wad as she gambled bigger and bigger. The croupier relieved her of her money by placing it over a slot in the table and pushing it down with a clear plastic cleaver, consigning the note to its fate with a sharp snap of his wrist.
After a while Sarah whispered to me, “Theres something about this place I don’t like. What is it?”
“It’s obvious. Have you noticed something ? Nobody talks and everybody looks so serious? There’s one simple explanation. We are on a room full of addicts.”
Sarah looked around. Of course, that’s why everyone looked so miserable, they were all feeding an addiction. That’s why victory and defeat were greeted in the same desperate, slightly aggressive manner – they didn’t care if they won or lost, they just wanted the buzz of the bet.
We left shortly afterwards, breathing in the cool fresh air of the Mediterranean that crashed up onto the pebbles on the other side of the road.