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A Visit to the Real Monte Carlo

As I write this, Shirley and I are on the Celebrity Millenium, courtesy of Harrah's New Orleans. Tonight we are sailing between Villefrance, on the French Riviera, near Nice, and Civitavecchia, fromBob DancerBob Dancer is one of the world's foremost video poker experts.  He is a regular columnist for Casino Player, Strictly Slots, and the Las Vegas Review-Journa land has written an autobiography and a novel about gambling.   He provides advice for tens of thousands of casino enthusiasts looking to play video poker.  Bob's website is  where we will motor to Rome tomorrow for a day of sightseeing.

Touring Nice would be nice (especially the Chagall museum), or maybe nearby Cannes, but I really wanted to see the Monte Carlo casino. It was built at the time of the American Civil War and is arguably the most famous casino in the world. There was an ad hoc travel group of eight of us who knew each other from various casino promotions through the years.

The roundtrip train ticket between Villefrance and Monte Carlo costs 4.80 euros, which is currently about $6.70. We paid our fare and the train came by about ten minutes later. Nobody asked to see our tickets. Apparently they check for tickets at random, and if they catch you ticketless, you pay 35 euros penalty. Frequently, though, you can get away without a ticket. Trying to figure out when they are going to check for tickets is clearly a form of gambling, and it wouldn't surprise me that locals set up all sorts of ways to beat the system. Not knowing the system, or the penalties, it never occurred to us not to pay up front.

We arrived at the Monte Carlo train station about 10:30 on a Saturday morning. We'd heard that the casino might not open before noon, or maybe one, so we decided to check out the Palace. It's not Buckingham, but hey! How many royal palaces do you get to see? The Changing of the Guards ceremony was set to take place at 11:55, so why not catch it? Prince Albert was at home (we knew that because of a certain flag that flew on top of the palace), and we were told he sometimes walks the grounds and talks to people, but we didn't see him.

Although Monte Carlo is a very small city, it's quite hilly and walking wasn't an option for at least some of our group, so we hopped on a city bus. We were dropped off half a mile from the parade ground where the guard-changing would take place, and to reach it we needed to pass dozens of small, expensive, boutiques and restaurants.

After the ceremony we grabbed another bus to the casino. Immediately inside the door, somewhat separate from the regular casino, were bunches of slot machines. The IGT video poker machines were denominated for 0.20 euros, roughly equivalent to American quarters. The games were dreadful, including 6-5 Jacks or Better and 8-5 Double Double Bonus poker. None of us were tempted to invest.

To enter the real casino, you had to pay 10 euros (about $14) and show your passport. Since paying to enter a casino goes against the grain for me, I briefly flirted with not going in. But what the heck! I'm nine time zones away from home, sixty years old, and may well never make it back this way again. Fourteen bucks started sounding not so expensive.

On the inside, early afternoon on a Saturday, there were more employees than players. There were two roulette games going, and one chemin de fer (baccarat) waiting for customers, but nothing else. There were no blackjack games staffed at this time of day, although there were many tables that would no doubt open up later in the day.

The chandeliers were large, but living in Las Vegas I've become jaded. Places like Bellagio, Venetian, Wynn and others easily out-dazzle this 140-year-old casino. It was well kept up, but I wasn't overwhelmed at all.

There were displays on the wall of former chips used, presumably denominated in French francs, although I'm not sure. The chips were brightly colored and in various shapes and sizes, although most were rectangular in shape, more or less the size of a dollar bill. The largest-denominated plaques I saw read 500,000. I don't know what a franc was worth when these plaques were used, but clearly this was big-time gambling.

We were a bit hungry, and they had a rather elaborate buffet available, but the 40 euros price tag ($55) was bigger than our appetite.

We visited the high limit video poker area. Here the games were denominated in 5 euros ($7), 10 euros and 20 euros . There were IGT machines, each requiring five coins to get the full value for the royal. The best game was 9-5 Jacks or Better --- not terrible at 98.5%, but nothing to grab our attention. Outside the high limit area there were some twenty-coin 2 euros games (about $56 per bet) that were actually 9-6 Jacks or Better with a 4,500-coin royal. This is a 99.8% game, which is MUCH better than we expected.

There was no visible slot club. Players aren't even tracked, although perhaps regular players get something extra. Even though 99.8% games are a very decent gamble by many people's standards, the house still has the edge. Negative games don't fascinate me in Europe any more than they do in the United States, but a couple of the guys in our group wanted to play, just to say they played in the real Monte Carlo casino. One asked me about adjustments to regular 9-6 Jacks strategy, and I gave him a few off the top of my head (hold 'QT' over KQ with neither flush nor straight penalty, etc.) but checking it later, I realized I'd missed a couple. If this was a game either of us played regularly, we'd have the exact strategy spot on.

There were no bill acceptors on these machines, meaning you had to insert twenty 2 euro coins to play a hand. "John" purchased 800 euros worth of coins (about $1,100) and began feeding them in. These coins are slightly bigger than quarters in diameter, and about twice as thick. On his first hand he got a straight, paying him 80 coins on his 20-coin investment. John commented that this was a good sign of things to come.

Wrong! The straight was the highpoint of his play. In the twenty minutes or so his 800 euros lasted, he never received a flush or higher, although he did receive a few more straights. Oh well. John plays enough video poker to know that a 20-bet "starting bankroll" isn't very large and losing it all was a very likely scenario. "Pete," another member of our group, ending up winning 160 euros in fifteen minutes and cashed out winners.

The handwipes were large and nicely packaged. Someone suggested grabbing a bunch of them and selling them on eBay, but nobody did. I have two as souvenirs, but that's it. Someone in our group mentioned that there was another casino in town (Loew's?) but we decided not to go.

Gambling-wise, I didn't bet at all, but I'm really glad I spent the day at that casino. I like to appreciate "once in a lifetime" opportunities.
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