Poker

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The Independent Culture
IT WAS one of those Mediterranean nights - velvet smooth under the stars, with a whisper of waves along the shore. James Bond in a white tuxedo, a beach babe on either arm, roulette chips in hand, was what I expected to see, up in the casino of the Carlton hotel in Cannes. The night had that frisson of excitement of the Cote d'Azur, once described as "a sunny place for shady people".

It was my first visit since the Carlton casino installed machines a sous, as the French call slot machines. But alas, for players whose memory of gambling in the South of France is one of high elegance with high risk, the first thing that greets the visitor is a wave of sweaty heat and a crowd clad in beach shirts jamming coins into slot machines.

The idea of taking the stuffiness out of French gambling, so that you don't have to dress up, is sensible. The Carlton casino has certainly been democratised since it was sold by London Clubs International. Entry to the slots parlour with its 50 machines is free, although the main casino adjacent to it still requires a passport and an entry fee of Fr70 (pounds 7). The night I was there, the punters were so jammed around the slots, players were fighting for seats.

The rot (if that's how you look at slots) set in at Monte Carlo. The grand casino where you broke the bank or broke your heart has for a decade been filled with tourists and backpackers in shirtsleeves. The old-style gamblers have all gone. Cannes now has a similar mix. Middle Eastern punters, with flashy demoiselles in tow, predominate, with a mix of Italians and newly rich Russians. The Brits seem few and far between.

Slots now rule the casinos of France, as they do indeed in every other country (except Britain, where the regulations still severely restrict their use). In the Carlton, the extra revenue earned by slots - probably Fr30m-Fr40m a year - makes the difference between running at a loss and making a fair profit. There is no arguing with the bottom line.

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