Game for another gamble

Harriet Clothier takes on the big-time players at the Grosvenor Club to try her luck at Casino Stud Poker and Super Pan 9
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The Independent Culture
As far as the casino world is concerned, January 1995 is the beginning of a new era. "I've never seen so much excitement," says John Espey, commercial director of Grosvenor Clubs, which owns 30 casinos across the country. Indeed, Mr Espey can hard ly contain himself. "It's the best thing that's happened for years," he says, grinning. "Twenty-five years, to be precise."

The reason Mr Espey is so thrilled is because he has been given a new game to play with. Two new games, in fact. Since the 1968 Gaming Act, casinos in Britain have only been permitted to play four strictly controlled games: roulette, blackjack, baccarat (puncto banco and chemin de fer) and dice. And everyone is bored stiff with them. "I think it's amazing customers haven't gone out of their minds with boredom," says Mr Espey. "Having two new games to play will be a real fillip for them."

The novelties hitting green baize tables across the nation this month are two new card games - Casino Stud Poker and the wildly named Super Pan 9- wherein the aim is to build a hand of three or four cards scoring nine, or as near to nine as possible. Each new game has had its special tables built, the cards are ready to be dealt and the chips are waiting to be thrown. All that remains is to teach the gambling population how to play.

We are sitting at the bar in one of Grosvenor Clubs' west London casinos, watching a training video. Directed by Mr Espey, this is designed to explain to members how to play Super Pan 9 and is screened several times each night.

This game looks hopelessly complicated. "We know you're going to find this game exciting and absorbing," booms a syrupy-sounding voice from the loudspeakers. We see five somewhat unabsorbed people standing around a gaming table. "Nigel has a hand totalling five," continues the Voice helpfully. The picture zooms in on Nigel, who is holding an ace (one), a jack (nil), and the four of clubs.

"D'ya understand it yet?" asks Mr Espey, crunching peanuts in my ear. "The house must draw to five and stand on six," says the Voice, sounding like an army instructor. We see another shot of the participants. Nigel seems to be missing. "He'd gone off to get a sandwich at this point," Mr Espey confesses. "He thought no one would notice." I turn to a group of suited men, also eating peanuts, on my right, and ask them what they think. "Looks a bit complex, says one. "I just come here to play roulette."

Mr Espey stands up and leads me to the newly installed Super Pan 9 table. "Come and play the game - for fun," he says. I am sitting at the table with eight other players, who are also all in training for the game. There is a crowd of interested onlookersbehind us. Everyone is wearing a suit and tie, or a little black dress. We're all using pretend money and I feel like I'm in a scene from a James Bond movie. I look at my hand. It is abysmal. Ashley, the dealer, glares at me. "Don't make a face when yousee your cards," he barks. "It'll let the others know you're a loser."

Gradually the rules become clear. Playing with a "stripped" deck of cards - no sevens, eights, nines or tens - makes the possibility of having a total score of nine not as remote as it first seems. You are given three cards, with the option of another tobump your total up. To win, players have to score better or the same as the house (banker). If your score is equal to the banker's score, and you have placed your bet on the "egalite" option, you win serious money (at 7:1).

A man on my right in a flowered tie puts all his money on "egalite", and loses. Ashley smartly collects all his chips. There are still a couple of thousand pounds-worth of chips on the table from everyone else. The man in the flowered tie shakes his head. "If this was real money, there'd be sweating and moments of silence. I'd still be playing, but I'd be depressed." How often does he come here? "About two or three times a week," says the man. He looks down at his depleted stack of chips. "I've just lost £300 there. In real life, I would have played with £30 to see if I could get it back. And then I'd cut my losses and stop playing for the night. You've got to come here and play with at least £100, which you have to be prepared to lose. I see it simplyas a fun leisure activity. No one makes any money."

We all get up and walk over to play Casino Stud Poker. It is about 10.30pm and the club is packed. Crowds of people stand by the roulette wheels or sit at blackjack tables. Everyone plays with complete sang-froid although they might be about to win or lose several thousand pounds.

"This is going to be popular," sniffs an elderly man called Harry, as the cards are dealt out. "Just like poker. But I've never played poker. I think I'll be worse than you," he says, elbowing me in the ribs matily. Harry comes to the club four times a week and spends "a few hundred" each time. "I've been a member for 27 years," he says, proudly. What's the attraction? "Luck, I think."

"Greed and stupidity," interjects the man in the flowered tie. Harry nods in agreement. We look at our cards, setting them into runs, pairs or flushes to beat the house. "At the end of the year, you always lose," says Harry, a retired business man who formerly ran a women's clothing company. "Why do I play? It's like a drug. I'm addicted. But I'm looking forward to the new games."

The games have a house "edge", in which the casino holds back a small percentage of any possible payout - which is the same as roulette. "But the odds are much better than the Lottery," says Roger Gilles, manager of the club. Mr Gilles is sure they'll take off in a big way. Indeed, on a weekday night, the number of players wishing to learn the rules is astounding. According to Mr Gilles, the club wins an average of £60 per head every night. As he sees it, it's no different to spending the same amount ofmoney on a night out at a restaurant, or the opera.

"It's just the same as the opera," says the man in the flowered tie. "It's an escape. It breaks up the humdrum of everyday life. Oh, I've had theories about how to win, and I've even tried them out at home on a computer. But although you may think you can win, you never do. They know all the tricks here, and the odds are against winning. You'll never win in the long term."