This week my kestrel-like gaze turns to the world of casinos. Interestingly, the word "casino" stems from 19th-century Italy and is an amalgam of two words: "casi" meaning money and "no" signifying whether you will have any at the end of the night. The first recorded instance of gambling came some 2,500 years ago in China. Of course, back then they didn't have fruit machines, but thankfully they did have fruit. Three men would stand in a line, each holding behind their backs three different types of fruit. Onlookers would then bet on which fruit each man would hold up when the signal was given. This is, of course, nonsense...
The real reason slot machines pay out when certain types of fruit line up in a row stems from machines called trade simulators from the 1880s. These contraptions would sit on the counter in cigar stores or sweet shops. Customers would feed the machine a coin, pull a lever and a five-wheel display would then spin around. To get around the gambling laws, instead of paying out cash the machines would pay out pieces of flavoured chewing gum and the famous cherry, melon or pear symbols would represent which flavour of gum the winning punter could expect.
My own experience of casinos is limited. I have never been to Las Vegas or Macau, but did once stay in a resort hotel in Morocco which had a 24-hour casino. One morning after breakfast, curiosity got the better of me and I wandered in, strolling around the blackjack tables and roulette wheels and trying to imagine what kind of dramas had been played out on these multi-coloured miniature battlefields.
Even at that time of day, there were hardcore gamblers at several tables, but it was hard to look at them without feeling a little pity. Plus, it was hard to even be in the casino because smoking was allowed. The stench of old fags and desperation was overpowering and it's hard to know if the so-called glamour of these places is nothing more than an invention of the management to get people coming back.
Personally, I prefer the idea of winning a handful of melon-flavoured chewing gum, but then my credentials as a punter are, as has been established many times in these pages, a little threadbare.