At the Casino: A Bittersweet Taste of Risk

Temptation haunts a curious world, filled with mystery, expectations and (of course) greed

On The Town | Stefan Kluger | May 2013

One lesson of gambling is seeing losses as the price of a good time (Photo: Casinos Austria)

"No more bets, please," the croupier says forcefully, while the crowd around the roulette-table pushes forward, obsessed with the ball bouncing uneasily around the wheel. I’m at Casinos Austria on the Kärtner Straße in Vienna’s 1st District with a friend who is a regular. Some might call him an addict; I just see it as "constantly seeking his fortune". I finger the heavy plastic chips in my pocket, which is somehow reassuring. I don’t give a damn which number it will be. Not yet.

The casino is a thrilling place to be – a curious world filled with mystery, expectancy and, of course, greed. Sure, it would be nice to come once just to try it out, for the atmosphere, the elegance. Or from time to time, as a diversion.

But honestly, there is only one real reason to come here: to make money, and to win! That’s nothing to be ashamed of. And if you don’t take it too seriously, it can even be fun.

The term "casino" derives from the Italian word "casa" (house) usually a villa, summerhouse or pavilion on a great estate. Such estates were scenes of elaborate parties including dances, music and gambling. The precise beginning of separate gambling houses is unknown, but sprung perhaps out of a need for discretion in the face of public morals. The first official record was found in China and dates back to 2,300 BC but gambling is familiar to almost every society, from ancient Greece and Napoleonic France to Elizabethan England, where early forms of contemporary roulette, Blackjack and chemin de fer had avid followings.

A game of chance

People dash back and forth between the roulette-tables, while others remain stoically in a chosen spot, perhaps a lucky chair or a favourite table. Whispers and sighs mingle with laughter, merging into a unique soundscape that characterises casinos all over the world.

Two tiny Asian women push through the crowd, battling their way to the front. One places her bets – very determinedly and in a fearsome hurry – on various numbers, while the other stands watching, obviously irritated. No chips left. But in short order she pulls out a wad of cash: "Two hundred on zero," she growls in a surprisingly deep voice. But luck is not with them and they hasten to the next table.

"Thank you," the croupier calls out in a sonorous voice to a tall, dark-haired, well-dressed man of around 50. He has just won and lifts his finger, sliding the croupier one chip as tip.

Strolling through a glass door reveals a second room with the same general setup and mood, but in a slight haze. Many European

casinos have a smoking area, catering to those for whom there is no pleasure without a cigarette, no style without a cigar, for the fidgety, the pretentious, or the simply addicted. A well-stocked bar in the back of the room entices

one to linger – but not yet. There’s another room, less crowded, with some card-tables in the centre.

We choose, of course, Blackjack. My inner voice whispers, "Bond, James Bond," as we take up our places at the table. The minimum bet is high, and our chips are dwindling. But that leaves us plenty of time to examine the people around us: A woman, who could be a privy councillor’s widow, turns her back on Blackjack and nimbly starts for the bar, her green evening gown catching the light amid the mass of grey, brown and black. As we catch up with her, she sips at a glass of whiskey. "What a fabulous idea," we agree, ordering two single-malts, eyes suddenly sparkling.

With waning patience and now bereft of caution thanks to the alcohol and clouds of smoke, we find ourselves again at the first roulette-table near the entrance, recklessly placing our final chips. "No more bets, please," a new young croupier announces. We stand frozen, eyes wide, in suspended animation… "Go, go, go!" we whisper, urging the little ball around the numbers, barely able to breathe. Pockets empty, we watch, as the little ball bounces into place.

Other articles from this issue