Have a flutter before you take off

Christine Aziz visits Amsterdam's airport casino
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Indy Lifestyle Online
THE CROUPIER'S "Rien ne va plus" coincides with the announcement that flight KL345 is boarding for Harare. Moises Wittemberg, en route from his home in Los Angeles to Madrid, watches the spin of the roulette wheel. He's placed his money on 17 - "my lucky number". The ball rests on 20 while the last call for flight BM234 to London is announced.

This is the world's only airport casino - in the departure lounge of Schiphol airport at Amsterdam. The pounds 2.5m casino was opened by Holland Casinos in April, and Mr Wittemberg, an engineer from Mexico, is one of more than 450 travellers who each day gamble their last guil- ders on the blackjack and American roulette tables.

"I've got a five-hour wait for my flight, and this is a great way to pass time," he says, his eyes flitting over the banks of fruit machines that line the walls.

Admission to the perpetual twilight of the casino is only by boarding pass and restricted to over-18s. Anxious to avoid the problem of players getting so hooked on a game they miss their flight, its managing director, Hans In Het Veld, insisted flight information had to be relayed into the casino over loudspeakers. "We also have something casinos never have - a clock. Usually casino users don't like to be reminded time is passing."

Wittemberg looks on enviously as a Japanese businessman scrapes in his pounds 34 winnings on the roulette table. "You win some, you lose some," he says philosophically, adding wistfully, "It's not like Vegas."

Jet-lagged Wilfred Allen, a South African businessman, punches tokens into a fruit machine, gunning for a pounds 20,000 win. He has a five-hour wait for his flight to Cape Town. "I'll stay here until I run out of guilders," he says optimistically.

"Schiphol is a transfer airport, so most of the people here have time to kill," said Mr In Het Veld, who also manages a sister casino at nearby Zandvoort. The croupiers work with robotic skill, perhaps because they are still acclimatising to the casino's unusually early hours. It opens at seven in the morning and closes at nine in the evening.

Normally, Holland Casinos conducts in-depth research into the socio-economic data of a region and the public's spending pattern prior to opening a new establishment, but this time the company has taken a gamble. Mr In Het Veld has had to rely on his own observations.

"It's popular with businessmen, who seem to like the blackjack table. It's lonely for them on these business trips, so they like the social element of the game. It gives them a chance to talk to other people," he says. "The normal spending time is about half an hour, compared to other casinos where it is three to four hours, and in that time at Schiphol they spend on average pounds 45. Unlike our other casinos we can't stipulate formal dress. It was a bit of a shock at first to see people in shorts wandering in."

It looks like having a flutter before take-off will become as much a part of departure lounges around the world as duty free shops. "The Japanese have already approached us for advice, and there are others," Mr In Het Veld says. With a swimming-pool, sauna and an indoor golf course, perhaps Schiphol 's departure lounge is the future of other big airports as destinations in their own right.