The tiny Chinese man with jigsaw teeth is perhaps the happiest man on the face of the earth. If he wins, he laughs. If he loses, he laughs harder.
We’re playing blackjack at the Empire Casino in Leicester Square, London, and everything is a source of amusement for this old guy. Between hands he’s kind enough to lean over in my direction and—in Chinese—share his thoughts with me. What in God’s name is he saying? And why won’t he stop laughing? Is he high? Demented? Perhaps his meds haven’t kicked in.
I shrug and chuckle along with him as the dealer gives himself a five on top of his sixteen: 21. We all lose. Hilarious!
My guess is that this Asian elf has sat through enough hands to understand that putting together a decent winning streak at a London casino is pretty much a long shot; each turn of the card confirms his belief that he’s got it all figured out, the gambling universe and his place in it.
Either that or he’s mad as a hatter.
Which I can understand. This is the Alice in Wonderland version of blackjack. It’s not even noon and the blackjack and roulette tables are jam-packed with noisy players. It’s the Tower of Babel and everyone is speaking in British, American or Eastern European accents or in Chinese.
Then there’s the young guy lounging mid-table who is not taking cards. Instead, at the beginning of each hand he scrambles to place bets on other players’ hands: multiple chips, plus side action on those dumb long-shot side bets that pay you a gazillion-to-one if your cards plus the dealer’s cards together make a straight flush, or their combined total equals the square root of an isosceles triangle’s hypotenuse.
Another old Chinese fellow is hovering over my left shoulder, lingering there, pressing in on me to get a closer view of the action. He’s a gnat. He won’t go away. This is my cue to cash in my chips and leave.
West End farce
The Empire at the Casino (operated by Caesar’s Entertainment) shares Leicester Square with a handful of other casinos, as well with a bunch of West End theatres. The effect is like an upscale mini-Vegas. Walk under the marquee for Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit starring Angela Lansbury, turn the corner, step into the Empire and play a role in the low-brow farce known as British blackjack.
Why is it farcical? Well, there’s this whole business of the casinos actually encouraging customers to bet on other customers’ hands. At the Hippodrome—several short blocks from the Empire—the tables are a confusion of green-felt geometrics, including three extra circles in front of each player that are meant to accommodate this freelance betting. Puzzling. Would you place your chips in front of a stranger whose blackjack skills are unknown to you and expect to win? Of course it’s simply a blatant attempt by the London casinos to bilk more money from their customers.
And then there’s a variation in blackjack procedure which is really quite perverse. British rules (or at least the rules in the casinos I visited) call for the dealer to deal two cards to all players and just one face-up card to himself. Action then progresses as the dealer goes around the table accommodating the players—allowing them to take a hit or not—and only then does he take his second card!
This was a bit of info I knew going in, but seeing it in action hammered home its absurdity. Here’s how this rule might play out.
In the good old USA, everyone—dealer included—gets two cards, and the dealer’s second card is face up.
Let’s pretend you’re at a Vegas casino and you’re dealt two eights. Blackjack 101 says you must split them. And let’s pretend that the dealer’s up-card is an ace. But before action progresses—before you can split those eights—he asks if anyone would like insurance (generally a poor wager), then checks his hole card. In our fictional scenario, he’s got a picture card underneath and he turns over blackjack. Everyone loses, but at least you didn’t have the opportunity to plunk down the extra money to split those eights.
But in London, this same scenario would work out very differently, one might say catastrophically.
The dealer goes around the table and gives you the two eights and himself a single card which is a face-up ace. Let’s say you’re betting 25£ (about $42US). You split the eights, so now you’ve got 50£ out there. Time for your first draw on your first eight…. and you get another eight. So you’ve got to split again.
Okay, let’s cut to the chase. In our make-believe scenario you follow basic blackjack strategy and you end up re-splitting those eights four times and doubling down on two of those hands. You’ve got 150£ out there (or about $250US) and now it’s time for the dealer to take his second card.
It’s a ten. Everyone loses, but you in particular are toast.
Huh x 7
After one such let-me-pull-a-rabbit-out-of-my-hat hand in which we all took a beating, I heard emitting from a fellow player a sound which I’ve heard many times stateside. In fact the first time I heard this noise, it was issuing from the mouth of my “pal” Evil George Taylor, who was suffering from an extended streak of bad luck in Reno. Uttered with a tight smile and a shake of the head, it sounded like huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh. No less than seven huhs.
The Grim Chuckle of Hopeless Resignation.
The Grim Chuckle of Hopeless Resignation says, Of course I lost. How could it be otherwise?
The Grim Chuckle says, I am a decent human being with no small modicum of intelligence, and yet I sit here being pummeled hand after hand by a stranger wearing a maroon vest and a nametag reading “Omar.”
It says, I could be doing anything right now. I could be reading a book or watching Mad Men or catching up on my sleep. Hell, getting shit-faced drunk would be a more productive use of my money and time than this soul-sucking activity. But after racking my brain trying to come up with a productive plan of action, the only thing I can do is mutter “Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh-huh.”
There’s something oddly comforting in hearing that sound come from a stranger at a blackjack table 5,000 miles from home. Apparently, the Grim Chuckle of Hopeless Resignation transcends borders and unites gamblers in a worldwide embrace of
despair impotence humanity.
Paging Clive Owen
One last stop on this mini-tour of London casinos: the Grosvenor Piccadilly, part of the huge Grosvenor (pronounced GROW-ven-er) chain of casinos. To gain entrance you must join their “club.” Okay, why not: This place must be special. I think of the film Croupier, with Clive Owen in a black tie and the gamblers in fancy suits, beautiful women hanging on their arms.
I join. I enter the casino: Empty, save for one or two players. Echoing through this vast space is Billy Ray Cyrus crooning “Achy Breaky Heart,” a tune I’m pretty certain didn’t find its way onto the Croupier soundtrack.
I go upstairs, where there are two human beings among the banks of gambling machines. One of them is a young Asian woman sprawled over the top of an electronic roulette game, fast asleep, the “before” picture of a Red Bull ad.
Cue the exit music.
Two minutes later I’m on the street, marching past a restaurant called The Slug and Lettuce, humming “Achy Breaky Heart,” a card-carrying member of the Grosvenor family, happy to see Angela Lansbury smiling down on my decision to beat feet from that sad-sack casino as fast as I could.