Independent Pursuits: Gambling

NEXT TUESDAY sees the unveiling of the most sumptuous casino in London, 50 St James (named by its address). It was in former times the Jamaican High Commission, and has been done over by London Clubs International, at a cost of pounds 6m, as a high-rollers' paradise.

A palatial entrance; gilded salons on either side; a magnificent staircase sweeping up to the main gaming room; an Art Deco dining- room; two salons prives for the millionaire players; gold leaf to die for. And overall, an air of aristocratic luxury such as only the British can create.

It is ironic - typical, you may say, of the switchback of fortunes that always happen in gambling - that this grand opening comes at a time when the casino industry, which had been so high, is down on its knees. Two heavy blows have fallen. First, the financial crisis in Asia, where most of the high-rollers come from, has hit casino gambling hard. The oriental plungers have more or less stopped playing in London.

Nor has it helped that a gaming licence has been granted to a new operator to continue running the property which LCI is vacating - the Ritz Club, just round the corner in Piccadilly. The new owners are the Barclay Brothers, property tycoons who are based in Monte Carlo. This brings the total of casinos in the capital up to 23.

Second, the last Budget imposed a severe increase in taxes on casinos, which will cost London Clubs International an estimated pounds 12m a year. Unlike other businesses, casinos cannot change their prices to recoup their costs. The odds, such as 35-1 for a number at roulette, are fixed by law.

No wonder LCI's share price has fallen by 50 per cent since the start of the year.

A similar decline has been suffered by Capital Corporation, the second casino group in London. The provincial operators have not been so hard hit, because they rely on local people rather than international high- rollers and are adept at surviving on a comparatively low turnover.

The public's attitude is probably "Who cares?" The casinos make enough money anyway; let's not waste any sympathy on them. Up to a point, this is fair enough. But why can't the Government show some consideration for the people who really matter - that is, the gamblers themselves? If the Home Office could bestir itself to give the public what it really, really wants - that is a better deal, by allowing more slot machines and relaxing outdated restrictions on casino gaming, the industry would have a fighting chance of overcoming its current problems.

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