Once the domain of hard-nosed gangsters and silver-haired millionairess es, today's casino culture is pulling in a different kind of gambler
it's 9pm and Scarlet is lounging on a sofa between games of blackjack at the casino. She is confident of her prospects during the long night ahead: "I was down here yesterday and made pounds 250 profit - that was a pretty good night for me. My best run was when I made pounds 9,000 over five weeks. When I win I play more often, so I'm here again tonight."

As she talks, the brightly lit Stakis casino in Bournemouth fills with men and women in suits, dresses and smart casual wear. These serious gamblers, from 20-year-olds in white shirts and chinos to expensively coiffured grandes dames share a common desire: to lose themselves for a while in poker, blackjack and roulette, and to leave with more money than they came with. For the next few hours their world will shrink to the green baize-covered tables, until their money, time or luck runs out.

The casino has been open since 2pm and a steady stream of punters has kept the croupiers busy, but it is in the evening that the place comes to life. Almost imperceptibly the click of chips grows more insistent, the rising thrum of conversation drowns out the background muzak.

Scarlet is among the casino's regulars. The owner of a Bournemouth fast food restaurant, she relaxes at the end of a long working day over a few games of blackjack, and her elegant clothes and heavy gold jewellery suggest she can afford it. "I've been coming to casinos for about 20 years. It used to be for special occasions. Then four years ago I lost my husband and now I come practically every night. I enjoy gambling. I know people it's got the better of, but for me this is a social environment, it's a safe place for women, and I don't lose a lot of money. If I win I play. If I lose I play carefully."

Such a pragmatic approach is in stark contrast to the obsessive career gamblers portrayed in Martin Scorsese's latest film, Casino, set in 1970s Las Vegas and released in February. Robert De Niro stars as Ace Rothstein, bookie turned Mob frontman for the Tangiers, a gambler's paradise, and Sharon Stone is hotly tipped for an Oscar for her portrayal of his money- hungry wife Ginger.

Casino strips away Vegas's glitzy veneer to reveal the low-life cheats, psychopaths and gangsters who ran the town until giant corporations gained control in the 1980s. It is a seedy cesspool that could not be further from the comfortable middle-class ambience of the Bournemouth casino, where instead of pimps and hustlers, the men and women gambling are white- collar professionals.

Britain's approach to casino gambling is altogether more puritanical than the showbiz kitsch found across the Atlantic. Here strict gaming laws require gamblers to become members of a casino and wait 48 hours before betting a penny. Advertising is banned, as are the complimentary drinks offered to players at the tables in Vegas, while bars must close at 11pm even though play can continue for a further five hours. However, these strict laws are under review.

A constant irritant to casinos on both sides of the Atlantic are the cheats and sharps. Often they work in teams, counting cards - near impossible to do alone when the dealer uses six decks at once - or distracting the roulette croupier so late bets can be placed after the ball has dropped. To counter their scams, every casino employs a complex security system, including revolving cameras and bow-tied "pit bosses" who supervise the tables. Says one: "In a modern casino you can't pick your nose without being caught on film."

The tight security is also useful for quashing outbursts from angry losers. One croupier recalls how, at her former workplace, a punter smashed a roulette table with a chair after losing tens of thousands of pounds. Here, though, the only mild display of ill-temper comes just before midnight, when a superstitious blackjack player turns on a male gambler who joined her table for one hand before moving on. The woman, a glamorous blonde, has been winning and is angry that the newcomer has disrupted her flow of good cards. The man shrugs and walks away.

At another table the roulette game is hotting up. A woman in her forties with a sleek black bob and dark suit is talking to her partner, a rotund man with greying hair who is watching her play. Clearly she has not had a good night. "I keep missing the numbers, it's not happening for me at all," she says. The pile of chips by her side indicates she could be there for some hours yet.

A few feet away Kevin, 35, is engrossed in a game of blackjack. "I find it relaxing; people come here because they have the money. That means they work hard, and that means stress. I'm a film producer. When I play I can forget about everything, even time, because there are no clocks." Kevin is based in London but is working on the South Coast for his latest movie - "I don't want to say too much about it" - and acquired a taste for pounds 20 a hand blackjack in the capital's casinos. So far tonight his luck has been poor and he has lost more than pounds 200. "You have to bet enough so if you lose you are a bit pissed off and if you double it you are happy, otherwise there's no point coming."

Gordon, 22, is a less frequent gambler and sees a visit to a casino as an alternative to clubbing or going for a meal. "I might go with my brother and a few friends if it was a 21st or after a wedding, something special like that. I would spend pounds 50, maybe even pounds 100. I go expecting to lose that much, so if you win it's an added bonus, but you never really win because the casino gets it all back."

Gordon earns a good wage working as a manager in his father's business but knows students who go to casinos, pooling their money with one person nominated to bet. For everyone the appeal is the same: "Whether you win or lose, when you are standing at the table there is a huge adrenalin rush. It's a bit like buying into a glamorous James Bond world for a few hours; it's pure escapism. I enjoy it because you're in with the big boys. You might be one of the youngest people there, but you have a different image, at the table, you can be their equal.

"I'm sure there are people who will go in and blow the mortgage, but for me that's not the idea. You can only judge by yourself, but I have enough self-discipline to know when to stop."

By now it's 2am and the crowds have thinned out to about 30 hard-core players. The woman from the roulette table has switched to blackjack; her partner is dozing in an armchair. Meanwhile Scarlet is down pounds 130, a bad result by her standards.

She is more subdued than before but shrugs off her losses. Her son Mike appears, ready to leave after a night playing cards. "He's a good boy," she smiles approvingly. "We're going to Las Vegas for his 21st birthday."