Fools Flush In
At Casinos Austria, a Classy Setting and €25 Minimum can Seduce the Unwary to a High Stakes Game; Most don’t Seem to Mind
Poker used to have a bad reputation - a game for gangsters, played in backrooms for ill-gotten gains. Particularly in Europe it was close to impossible to find even four people for a Friday night game at home, as poker was regarded the first step towards social downfall and a career in crime.
Recently, though, the game has shaken off this image and became a popular leisure-time activity for the broader public. Online poker is booming; TV schedules are packed with poker shows and tournament coverage, and more and more people give up their often successful jobs in hopes of an even more successful career as a professional poker player.
But in Austria, specifically Vienna, with only 15 legal casinos in Austria and even fewer poker rooms, where does one go in a restrained, dignified country that does not instantly jump the bandwagon of every new trend? Where can out-of-towners find a big game? And more important, where can we amateur players go and not lose our shirts?
To service the high-rollers in us all, Casinos Austria is now offering, as a side to their roulette repertoire, an almost nightly cash game for a minimum sit-down price of €100, or a tournament twice a week with a €50 buy-in. I say "almost nightly," because only if there is enough interest, will there be a game, but the amount of tables are never specified.
Taking a lead from an Austrian friend, who said that Casinos Austria was a charming place where you could have a good time, I decided to check out the €25 sit-and-go tournament on Thursday and Friday nights. The price seemed right, and as there is a ten person limit, I was pretty confident that I could make some money.
I arrived a little late on Friday evening, due to missing the first tram in a series of changes. In an American casino, this can be fatal, as the line for tables can be hundreds of people long.
So somewhat frantically, I paid at the front desk and gave my jacket to the clerk. With my chips in hand, I quickly made my way up the stairs into a game room as I have never seen before. Despite the imminent crowd I would have to wade through, I had to pause and take in the beauty of the room. Instead of cheap, flashy lights, I experienced a perfect glow from the large chandeliers bouncing their light against the mainly red covered room. It seemed as if the original architecture was intact, adding a strong, historic undertone to the already impressive atmosphere. Instead of using every available inch, the casino seemed to want to give their guests enough room to chat or casually watch the games in progress.
Unlike other casinos I have been to, everything – from the chandeliers to the carpet – seemed to be the real thing, of high quality, not just good looking or flashy.
I made my way through the roulette and black jack tables to the back. There; I found three empty tables each with a POKER sign stitched upon them. I was in the right place. But where was the sound of chips clinking together, every poker player’s notion of a great symphony?
I soon learned from a floor manager that the €25 tournament wasn’t what their customers wanted. There was going to be a major tournament coming up, lasting weeks. But if I was interested in playing tonight, I could stay for the cash game beginning at 20:00, sit-down price being "only" €100. There’s a sucker born every minute…
But I had already gone out into the cold to get there, and checked my jacket for 70 eurocents. I didn’t want the trip to be all for nothing, so I decided to wait.
It soon became clear that Texas Hold’em (my favorite) was not the pride and joy of this casino. In the small, but still elegant space, there were 10 roulette tables (2 electronic, 3 French and 5 American), 7 Blackjack tables, and an upstairs room filled with "One-Armed-Bandits."
I have never really understood roulette and couldn’t tell you which version I was watching, American or French, but tonight I had time, and I have always been interested. So I decided to stick around. As the evening progressed, I was to learn a lot more than the rules of the game.
As I walked up to the first table, a heavy-set Italian man was showering his blue chips in a rush onto the table. The emotionless "No more bets please" didn’t slow him down. All chips down, he stepped back and fixated upon the electronic sign above the wheel. Lights blinked and flickered…
He actually won! Or at least partially: He had a blue chip half in the space, a payout of 1:17.5. The table minimum was €5, so he must have won somewhere around €60.
As I was walking away, the woman croupier dropped my jaw: "1 to 17.5 payout, €1,750."
There must have been a mistake! I shoved a little closer to see… and then it hit me: Those blue chips were €100 each. Before I could start breathing again, the man, hoping for a streak, starting unloading again. His entire winnings were on the table long before the croupier called "No more bets." I wanted to cry. She started the spin.
The ball seemed to spin forever. All I could imagine were those scenes from gambling movies where the guy would end up losing all his money and go home dejected and broken. Finally the ball slowed enough to evil-ly jump in and out of the slots, coming to a rest on…
"Red 12. Line. Box…." I didn’t know what the woman was talking about, just that he had lost it all.
Briefly distracted by someone moving in front of me, I came back to the table to see three purple €500 bills on the table. He was doing it again, without as much as letting a spin go! Once again, the blue chips. Once again, the mass exodus. Only as his hand went back into his jacket pocket, did I realize he had lost again. No. He couldn’t be buying more?! Another €1,500 (this time with green €100 and orange €50 bills)!
"No more bets please. Bitte keine andere Einsätze." – the dull tones resonating through me.
"Red 21." That was it. He was cleaned out.
As he walked away, I realized that in the last ten minutes he had lost more money than I would see for the rest of this year. Looking back at what I had witnessed, I noticed he didn’t smile when winning or flinch when losing. He might as well have been playing with match sticks or grains of rice.
Well, if I got this kind of show throughout the evening, I wouldn’t mind if that was all I did. The other roulette tables, however, were not quite as interesting, in that collectively, only €1,000 was bet on each spin. Though it seemed at times as if "No more bets, please" was a starting gun for many, as if somehow by breaking this rule, they could break the odds and win it big.
I moved on. Casinos Austria also has some card tables, played against the house. Here again, the blue chips came into play. One gentleman was playing blackjack with €200 on each hand, seven hands in total, but unlike in roulette, he actually showed his frustration when the dealer’s top card was an Ace.
After walking around for a while, I began to notice that what seemed to me outrageous betting wasn’t all that outrageous in this casino. Granted, there were only a selected few playing outright with blue chip €100s, but many used red €50s, and whoever didn’t made up for it with € 10 portions in quantity.
I looked at my watch: it was 19:45, only 15 minutes to go. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw two German students (I have played enough to be able to judge this) watching a roulette table and showing each other chip tricks. It turns out that they had also come for the €25 game and had decided to stay for the cash game. €100 being too much for each alone, only the better of the two was going to play. They would split the winnings later. Oddly enough, they seemed to be nervous about me, as I am American and "must be a great player."
Finally it was time. As we all sat down, I realized the nervousness, however appropriate, was grossly misplaced. The student sat down next to a man who had sat down with €1,000. He was not the only one; some half the table had disregarded the minimum.
In this situation, it doesn’t really matter how good of a poker player you are. Once the majority has more than ten times of what you have, it becomes a game of luck and patience. The only hope I had was either that these stacks were for show (as with the roulette player) and they didn’t know how to play poker, or, I could win a good hand or two and get out of there with a quick buck.
After a few folded hands, I got the feel of the table – and felt sick. These stacks were there for business. These gentlemen, and lady, were there to play real poker.
It took until the 8th hand of the table to get to a showdown. This could have been just flexing of their money-packed muscles, but it would have cost too much to find out. Officially the minimum bet was only €4, manageable by even my standards, but as we were only given a few €2 chips, and mainly €10/20, the minimum had been unofficially changed.
While waiting for the next hand, I generally like to start up conversation with either the dealer or other players in my vicinity, particularly if they have also already folded. But here, unlike the poker tables I have played at in the past, the dealer’s nametag was just a stitched on "Casinos Austria." Without a name, it was tough to start a conversation with him. The individual next to me seemed to be new to poker, messing up the blinds (the initially required bets) more than once. That was really a signal to the large stacks. He became a target and by the time the dealer chip made it my way, he had to get another €100. It was the 9th hand of the evening, and he wouldn’t be a good person to befriend.
The German student was next. He pushed his stack in (€82) and was easily called by his neighbor. With no way to re-buy, they left the casino quickly.
Eventually, I entered into a hand on the cheap, where, if I got another card, I could easily decide to push in or not. A casual bet of €50 from a large stack would basically put me all-in. I decided to risk it and put in my comparatively measly stack. It turns out that he had bet "small" to bring others in. I didn’t hit my flush or straight, which would have won against his three of a kind, a great hand by any standards.
As I left the table, I looked back at the stack of blues that came out of the man’s pocket who had instantly occupied my position. This isn’t a world that I am ready to get into. Give me a €10/20 game with friends and some emotion between excited revelations of unexpected cards.
On the way through the roulette tables, the Italian was back, his blue chips on the table again, his hand half in his pocket to take out more bills.
I found myself hoping his luck would change against the absolute odds of the house.
Kärntner Straße 41
3.00 p.m. (Jackpot Casino 10.00 a.m.), closed on (Christmas eve evening)
(01) 512 48 36
Parking is available in the Kärntnerring-garage
Bankomat cards, Visa, Diners Club, Master Card and JCB are accepted