The Ritz Club, the casino arm of the venerable and resplendent hotel in Piccadilly, is, for the discriminating player with an 18th-century sense of what gambling is all about, “the other place.” Apart from the late John Aspinall’s hallowed sepulchre in Curzon Street, this subterranean alhambra is the only privately owned gambling club in London. The remaining 30-odd joints—some magnificently appointed, such as the Clermont, others irreparably dingy, such as the Victoria, still others, such as the Connoisseur, possessed of that curious blend of the gleam of brushed steel with the reek of Indian kitchen spices now characterizing the modern in what remains of Britain—are owned by hotel and leisure chains, some coming from as far afield as Atlantic City.
Loyal as I am to Aspinalls, I thought it was only fair that I should give the Ritz a chance, and, when the management there smiled on me benignly, I succumbed. On my maiden evening at the club, I found myself playing side by side with a man of athletic build who was betting the floor maximum of £1,000 per number. Judging by his accent in English, and from his lively banter, over the head of the impassive croupier, with a sidekick at the next table, I identified a Serb on a rampage. How ironic that all these jolly fellows should be from the Balkans, I thought, and straightaway something in my mind seemed to sprout the gossamer wings of a metaphor.
Now, in Moscow casinos, throwing down $50,000 per spin is only comme il faut—a nameless fan of my gambling friend Yuri Bashmet, the violist, often comes to try his luck at the National with two million dollars—and the same may be true of the lawless expanse of local color between Split and Podgorica. Over here, this kind of behavior draws notice. Still, when the pair, £100,000 to the good, left the casino that night, nobody, least of all the expensive Hungarian blonde they had in tow, could complain that London was an unfriendly and snobbish town. The trouble was, on the two nights that followed, they took the Ritz for another £1.2 million.
Fortune, says the old Scottish proverb, laughs with one eye and weeps with the other. (For those who think it is actually Serbian, see Shakespeare’s Hamlet I.ii.11.) The winners were given £300,000 in cash and a check for £900,000, whereupon the management stopped the check and called in Scotland Yard. A week later, a full-page article in the London Times announced that the pair “were alleged to have used a computerised scanner to predict the outcome of every spin of the wheel.”
“The device, concealed in a mobile phone,” the report continued,
measured the speed of the ball and calculated which numbers it was most likely to rest upon. The possible existence of such a machine, which could reduce the odds of winning from 37-1 to just 6-1, has sent shock waves through the gambling world.
Now that I think of it, the Serbs did spend a lot of time fiddling with their mobiles. “The laser scanner measures the speed of the ball as the croupier releases it and beams the information to a microcomputer,” surmised the Times. “The device is not able to predict the exact number on which the ball will come to rest, but instead identifies a particular group of neighbouring numbers.”
Exactly a year ago, I wrote in this space that “the rational component at work in the physical apparatus of the roulette wheel is so absurdly self-evident” that, in 1966, it led a man called Ed Thorp,
with a team of enthusiasts calling themselves the Eudaemonic Enterprises, to design a ‘wearable computer’ that would correctly predict the neighbors section of the wheel where the ball was likely to land on the basis of measurements of its initial speed.
So, neither the Times nor its “gambling world” seems to know that the trick in question is almost 40 years old. As is the trick of counting cards in games like blackjack, which had been regarded as a maniacal fantasy for some 300 years previously, until the American casinos started turning out of doors the undesirables whom their managers identified as card counters.
The visitors are not going to get their money, of course. They will be lucky to see the Danube again. The episode poses a larger question, however. If the physical component at work in roulette is as substantial—and hence open to scientific inquiry—as its mathematical counterpart in card games, are we not idiots for becoming obsessed with roulette? The question, my astute readers will appreciate, is a wholesale inversion of what passes for conventional wisdom, which holds that those who throw good money after bad at the gambling tables are idiots because the games they play are unpredictable, the house has the edge, and there is no glory in being a statistic. Indeed, it is quite obvious to me that anyone who, night after night, like so many people I know, sits in a casino playing blackjack, wastes time and money. For, unless he is a trained card counter, he is a ridiculous fool. Am I to conclude, then, that anyone who plays roulette without a microcomputer in his Get Smart shoephone, or a Gilligan’s Island receiver in his eyetooth, is a ridiculous fool as well?
Not in the least. Perhaps unbeknown to the Serbian adventurer who has now set the gambling world alight, roulette is not about walking away with the loot. The adrenaline rush, in that mysterious transfiguration which is the player’s nirvana, is set in motion by his being proved right, if only just once, not by his having more money in his wallet than he came with. Like the internecine strife in his native Balkans, it is about winning individual battles, not the whole war, for what military commander worth his gunpowder cares about the final outcome? That is something for politicians to bungle.
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