CASINO DESPERADOS

by Jeff Nix; photography by Bogdan Braykov

Fruit-machine crawling in Sofia is not at all you thought it might be

casino desperados.jpg

Sitting on my balcony last weekend, all seemed pretty fine in my universe. It was a lovely afternoon. I had a good book open. My coffee was steaming. Yet, for some reason I couldn't concentrate and felt that I was missing something. Went through a few little checks... Work? No. Family or friend's birthday? No. Date? Nope. So I shrugged and went to take a shower. When I finished my ablutions I noticed that my phone was showing a text message. I checked it and saw that it was from a good mate in Paris.

"Getting suited and booted! Champers gonna flow!", which translates as "It's the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe", the biggest horse race of the year in France and also my favourite day of the year. Meeting friends. Breaking out the duds and the hats, sipping champagne and talking absolute shite about the relative merits of each nag that we would later lose money on. Ah... sweet nostalgia.

Well, now the seed was planted. I knew that I was not going to make the races that day but I decided that I was definitely going to find a way in which to pit my skill against an adversary, against a more powerful force.

Going in the underdog but relishing it! A couple of hours later, I had built myself up into such a frothing frenzy that I felt a bit like Spartacus as I strode down the street with a friend, on the way to that modern coliseum, The Casino.

The first thing we noticed as we entered our first would-be victim was that it was not, in fact, a casino after all. You see these all over the place and although they advertise blackjack, poker and so on, the reality is that all of these games are actually played on a fruit machine. Well, needless to say, this was not the glamorous mono e mono confrontation I was looking for.

Doesn't really work, drawling out a "Hit me boss" to a button. And judging by the relative affluence of the clientele I'm not sure the machines ever actually paid out anyway. We moved on.

Next stop was the Sheraton hotel and after a few formalities we were in there with our shiny new membership cards. The first thing that hit me about the place was the incredible, overpowering cheesiness. I was expecting neon and flashing lights of course; what I was not expecting was all the dealers and service staff to be kitted out like extras in a 1987 Miami Sound Machine video! We are talking short flowery skirts, bared midriffs and matching tops. The final addition to this fest of fromage, as we were later to discover, was the bizarre practice of playing that song "Tequila" every half hour or so. At this point all the staff would stop for about a minute and rhythmically clap along. And then just as it had begun, it would stop and the place would return to relative normality.

Upon receiving my first slightly watery jack and coke from a very bored "Bangles" look-alike I started to search for the lucky table. Problem was, all but two of the tables were set up for a strange looking game called Caribbean poker and I was really in the mood for some blackjack.

Finally found a table and sat down amidst a group of players who looked as if they'd been there for a week straight. This was no bunch out for a couple of drinks and a laugh. Sidelong glances reigned in the place of cheery backslaps and commiserating shrugs.

Still, my mood was not totally sombre as I had a nice little run and after about 40 minutes was up a couple of hundred leva. Turns out my mate was doing alright on the roulette table as well and we were actually starting to settle down into our surroundings. The service really was quite good and the dealers I played with seemed genuinely pleased with my small victories. It was at this point that we exchanged rather smug glances and headed to the cashier in order to collect our ammunition that we would need for our final mission of the evening.

We strolled into the London Casino full of expectation and confidence. After all, we wouldn't even be playing with our own money! This place was more along the lines of what I had been expecting. The garb was traditional black and white for the employees and the clientele generally seemed to have much more money than I did.

We sat down at the blackjack table, ordered some drinks and immediately struck up a conversation with an American film producer who was taking some of his staff out for a few drinks. We settled into the friendly banter and the free drinks were flowing. For a while it was hit and miss, strikes and gutters, and I hadn't really noticed the gutters outweighing the strikes.

At some point I slid off my chair with the intention of heading straight to the toilet but instead did a wobbly little two step and realised with slight alarm that I was in a casino and well and truly pissed! This was bad. A wounded wildebeest at sunset on the Serengeti. It was time to take stock.

I opened my wallet with mounting fear and quickly established the fact that my winnings had vanished, along with a tidy little sum of my own hard earned cash. Now the tables had turned. I was no longer seeing everybody as convivial revellers out for a laugh. They were the swarthy, bling-wearing enemy and had to be dealt with as such. I cashed in my last hundred and headed for the roulette table, where fortunes can change in the blink of an eye.

Well... they didn't. I stuck to three or four numbers: my age, Bob Dylan's birthday, Stevee G's shirt, and a random. Felt like I had a system that way. Anyway, it didn't work.

We left the casino very late and went for a cleansing ale where we let the stress slip away and realised that, all in all, we had had a fun night and I'd lost less than I normally lose at the races. Walking home the only thing that slightly concerned me was how I am going to deal with the three day Cheltenham festival.

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