Absolute beginners!

It’s easy to ask what customers who regularly visit a casino think, but what about convincing people who never dare to venture inside?  In the first of a new series, we send gambling and gaming virgin (and single white female) Kate Williamson into the Palm Beach casino in London to try her hand at the games and take in the experience…

Casinos, For me, the very word conjures images of mahogany skinned women with cavernous cleavages and bouffant hair. Plush carpet. Martinis. Men with hairpieces. Tony Soprano. I should probably point out at this juncture that I have never been in one in my life. However, as the UK gambling market is set to expand soon, gambling could be an important skill to master, and as Philip Anschutz is unavailable to give me a private session on his ranch, it is with a spirit of responsible citizenship -and investigative journalism -that I agree to visit a casino. I do have a vague worry in the back of my mind that I will be seduced by a man with a helicopter. Or a hairpiece. Or possibly both.
      Possessing a first-class degree in Italian, and more importantly being heavily addicted to The Sopranos,, I know that the word casino comes from the Italian diminutive for house, coso. Interestingly the Italian word casino also means brothel. So both words refer to naughty places. Do you sense the negative image I have built up here? When I heard I was to visit the Palm Beach casino in London, I relaxed slightly. As I come from Torquay the English Riviera the addition of the word ‘Palm ’ to anything takes me back to the seaside. A happy place.

My initial worry was it would be tacky. But the Palm Beach, situated in up market Mayfair, is truly stunning. Yes, there are palm trees everywhere, but the effect is definitely more Cannes than Torquay. The idea of a palm tree chandelier may sound awful, but it is actually rather stylish. I am completely sold on the decor. I later discover that when Palm Beach opened in 1965, the manager originally came from the Palm Beach casino in Cannes. After changing hands in 1989, it was bought by Stanley leisure in 2003, and it has spent around £1.1m on the refurbishment so far, with the restaurant and a new entrance from the Mayfair Hotel next on the list for transformation.

“There will be a relaunch party when the restaurant is finished, and this will be our kick-off for the new place,” says Virginie Bigand, director of marketing and hospitality. And she explains, with the revamped casino comes a new target clientele. “I’ve developed a corporate package where I target companies, particularly in the Mayfair area, and we offer a set package of cocktail reception, dinner in the restaurant and a pker game organized for them. Poker is very fashionable right now, so this is starting very well. ”

Hmm. I’m not exactly a corporate client. Is Palm Beach doing anything to attract the ladies? “There are two things. First of all poker is working with women so we try to sometimes have a poker night with only women. ” Backgammon also attracts women, she adds, and there are regular sessions on a Monday night. “We have done theme nights in the restaurant, like a Sinatra night, which are more targeted at the ladies,” she says. This may continue, depending on the new design. There may also be a cabaret room in the future, but this is still at the planning stage. Bigand is also very excited about the upcoming refurbishment of the restaurant, including an award-winning chef, David Laval, and a new fusion-style menu, which she thinks will draw people into the establishment.
“We have a lot of couples also coming for dinner at night. And with the refurbishment of the restaurant and the  new foods it's going to be better because we're going to be able to promote even more on the restaurant price. This will attract again a new target. And in a place like Mayfair you have to be right with your food and your hospitality. ” Gary Moore, director of gaming, agrees that the recent changes should attract a new type of gambler. “A lot of the improvements we’ve been making are about making it more of a destination so it’s not just a casino, which can put people off," he says.

I admit to him that I have never been to a casino, and quite frankly have never wanted to, especially as I have no idea about gambling in any form. “You can get blinded by the technicality,” he says diplomatically. “Ultimately you’re here to have fun, try and win some money obviously, and feel comfortable, and that’s the thing that we’re trying to break down, this mystique with casinos -there is still this relatively stereotypical image. ”
After all, he adds :  “Deregulation is going to mean nothing if people still feel that casinos are somewhere you wouldn’t go for a good night out. ” And that's what my friend Hana and I are here for. So what games would they recommend to a first- time gambler? “I would say the two easiest gaming ig poker are roulette and blackjack,” says Bigand. “With roulette, you just choose a number. With blacjac, you have to remember the cards and count all the time so it's a bit different. ” Moore also recommends blackjack. He also persuades us to take a beginners' session with Jo. “She’ll show you the ropes so when you get to the table you don’t feel such a novice. ”
There are free training sessions, which run on the hour for most of the evening. Jo, a New Zealander and experienced dealer and trainer, talks at 100mph and clearly knows her stuff. Hana, an Australian, seems to have some special Antipodean ability to follow her explanations. I, however, am struggling. Blackjack appears to involve maths. Jo even gives me a crib sheet to read from. Despite the fact the rules are clearly written down for me, four times I demand an extra card at the wrong time. Each time Jo says it’s not a good idea. But I insist. And unsurprisingly I lose every time. I’m not getting this. Hana whispers : “When Jo says ‘Are you sure you want another card?’ say ‘No’. ” This advice proves useful later in the evening

We move onto roulette. Surely there’s no skill involved in roulette? No, no skill, but unfortunately more maths, this time odds. Once again I flounder as the various odds for different positions are explained. Naturally I fail to win any, although my pronunciation of Tier, Orphelins and Voison is far better than anyone else’s. Then it’s back to the blackjack table for a refresher game. After a while Jo notices that despite the fact we are playing with practice chips, I am still only betting with one at a time. “You’re not a natural gambler, are you?” she asks.
No, I’m not. And as we take to the gambling floor, I start to feel genuinely uncomfortable. In the hour we have been t training the casino has filled up. There’s a real mix of people and ages, but they clearly all know what they are doing. The hot weather has been causing Bigand headaches in terms of the dress 'e code, but I see no evidence of this tonight. The men are all wearing jackets and most of the women are dressed up too. At one point I think I see Jackie Collins, but it is a mirage among the palms.
We watch the £2 roulette tables first, e plucking up the courage to put a bet on. There is an amazing atmosphere: people are crowding around the tables, dropping hundreds of pounds on the table and spreading their chips liberally over the numbers. One man is nonchalantly playing on three tables simultaneously. I have no idea how the dealers are able to keep track of the winners I’m not sure the players have any idea of what numbers they ’re on.
Terrified by the confident throng, we withdraw to watch the people on the roulette machines. These are also extremely popular and we fail to get a seat. “There’s nothing else for it,” says Hana. “You’ll have to play blackjack. ”We scan the room for the £10 tables (as you may have guessed, I'm on a budget). Hana’s gaze is inexplicably drawn to a table at the far end of the room, with an extremely attractive dealer. I decide that if I’m going to lose money to anyone, I want it to be Giuseppe. The decision made, I confidently stride up to the cash desk and ask for £30 of chips. She looks slightly aghast as she explains that they only sell plaques, minimum £50, and that I can pay for ‘small amounts ’ of chips on the tables. Oops.

Suitably chastised we return to our spot near the £10 blackjack table and hover for around 10 minutes, ostensibly watching the players (a gentleman in his sixties and a woman in her mid-forties, with a couple of stacks in front of her) but actually just whispering “Oh, God! I don’t want to do this!”“You have to do this!” back and forth at each other with growing hysteria.
Eventually Giuseppe notices us loitering (it’s the only ward). Our pained expressions are amusing him. I seize the moment and pull up a chair. I am giggling with nerves. The other players are not. I place £20 on the table and he gives me two chips (counte’em). I place one chip poker cash in the box. OK, I’m in. I’m gambling! My first card is an ace I know this is good. My second card is nine. So that’s 20. Oh hang on, is that a soft nine?  I am disarmed without my crib sheet.
Giuseppe comes round again. He looks at me and I say : “Yes ”. He says, very slowly : “You have 20. Behind me I hear Hana hissing. “No!”“NO,”  I say emphatically. Phew. Dealer busts and I win £ 10! Ten whole English pounds!  Brilliant. The thrill of winning is a major buzz. Then I discover that I am not the most terrified person in the room. Hana is tugging at my arm. “Leave now!” she urges, “While you’re winning. ” I explain that leaving now would be the most utterly cowardly thing I have ever done, while shoving another chip in the box. In a split second I have lost it. Now I start to think she was right I lose my last one. I dismount from the table and thank the dealer. The other back players have barely registered my arrival and departure. “Oh well,” says Hana, “at least we made the table a bit livelier for a while. Bigand is pained that lost. I consider explaining that I never expected to win, but decide that this is probably a blasphemy within the walls of a casino.

Hana and I decide that we have had enough excitement for the night and depart onto the streets of Piccadilly. And as we fail dismally to find a decent late night drinking venue over the next half an hour, the realization dawns that after the false start that was 24hour drinking, one of the strongest marketing tools for casinos to lure non-gamblers has to be that they are glamorous, safe and friendly environments to have a late night drink with friends, with the added attraction once you are acclimatized and in your comfort zone of playing a couple of games of blackjack or ice poker for fun. Although the casino might not make much money in the short-term, it would be a good way of getting people like me to feel comfortable in that environment.

And I think this is why I can safely predict I will return, perhaps with friends   who have more cash to splash (sorry Hana) and who know what they ’re doing in a casino environment. At the end of the day it has to not matter whether you win or lose but I think I would prefer to spend £ 100 on a good night out at Palm Beach once in a while than £50 on entrance and overpriced cocktails in a Dodgy nightclub.