Gamble Like James Bond: Living Large at the Casino Royale in Monaco

The guy beside me has just put 8000 euros down on the plush green felt of the roulette table.  He looks like someone trying not to look like a movie star — expensive but casual grey cotton shirt, jeans, a few days’ stubble.

And he’s as cool as a cucumber.

He slides his big, rectangular plastic chips over to the line between 1-12 and 13-24.  He’s got a two-thirds chance of winning 4000 euros, and one-third chance of having a good story for his first Gamblers Anonymous meeting.

The croupier spins the wheel to the left and flicks the ball to the right.  The ball buzzes around the wooden rim of the wheel like an angry bee.  And drops.  On 33.  Prince Albert is 8000 euros richer.

The guy shrugs and walks off — easy come, easy go.  I, on the other hand, am about to faint.

There are not a lot of ways in which James Bond and I are similar.  He has Q to develop the latest in laser-related personal self-defense items; the closest I ever get to high-tech  gadgetry comes from the back catalog of Sharper Image.  He seduces women while cheating death on seven continents; I sometimes have trouble remembering the names of all seven continents.  Most critically, I like my vodka martinis stirred.

But the beauty of the Monte Carlo Casino is how accessible and affordable it is even for those of us who don’t have seven-figure expense accounts provided by Her Majesty’s secret service.  I showed up in just-slightly-above-average American tourist garb — jeans, hiking boots, and a polo shirt borrowed from my father that was two sizes too small.  I assumed that there would be a velvet rope and a heavyset bald Russian keeping out everyone but models and suave assasins, but in fact, a few hours at the Casino are yours for the price of an entry ticket — just 10 euros.

And, the Beaux Arts building itself is worth the price of admission.  Since I went in the early afternoon on a weekday, only the Salon Europe was open.  (The more exclusive and more opulent Salons Privees — where a jacket is required — don’t open until 8:00 p.m.) But even the Salon Europe has the feeling of a palace, with blinging gilt work everywhere and gorgeous frescoes on the ceiling.  It’s the kind of room you spend a lot of time in as a tourist in Europe; the difference here is that you can stay as long as you want, order a drink, and sit on the furniture.  It’s cool to be able to chill out in an environment like that without a tour guide hustling you along or a museum guard giving you the stink-eye.

But of course, even though you could just sit around sipping on a gin and tonic and admiring your surroundings, it would be a shame to stand where James stood and not at least take a shot at turning the price of that drink into a fortune large enough to buy one of the more modest yachts in the harbor.  Since roulette was the only game I understood, I decided to go with that.

And, like the Casino itself, the roulette tables are surprisingly welcoming to the hiking-boots-and-jeans set, with five euro minimum bets.  I started out with my usual strategy of betting on either black or red, but gradually became more adventurous, eventually winning twice on the 17-21 four corners.

As always happens when I gamble, I became ridiculously stressed considering the small amounts at stake.  It only got worse when Mr. Eight Grand laid down the price of used car and lost.  Finally, though, someone showed up to prove to me that I wasn’t the worst white-knuckle gambler in the place that day.  This guy was the opposite of Eight Grand in every way.  He was short, bald, overweight, and sweating profusely.  You would never be allowed to cast him as the Nervous Gambler in a movie, because it would be too much of a stereotype.  But there he was, looking like he had just stopped by the Casino while he had a few minutes between major cardiac events.

He muttered softly to himself and pushed his one 5000 euro chip over to red.  The wheel spun, and I started mentally running through the CPR training I had in sixth grade.  Do you pump the chest five times between each breath, or seven?  I hoped someone there would know.

The ball dropped.  On red.  Nervous Gambler was 5000 euros richer.  I started to relax for the first time since sitting down at the table, but he seemed even more stressed after winning than he was before, like people who are relatively calm during a near-death experience and freak out afterward.  He walked over to one of the red velvet couches and sprawled out, eyes glazed and staring at the ceiling.  He was still there, quietly sweating on the furniture, when I left an hour later.

And as for me?  Well, I don’t like to brag, but after tipping the croupier generously (what would Bond do?) and making up for my father’s somewhat lackluster performance, I finally walked away with 20 of Prince Albert’s euros.  I hope it won’t impact his lifestyle too much.

I still sometimes think about Eight Grand and Nervous Gambler, and I wonder — which one was the real spy?