As the old year turns new, we all look back on the year’s opportunities and risks; at the chances taken, and moments we let pass.
As a gambler, I’m no great shakes, but I enjoy it. I like to play blackjack when I get the chance, if the odds are reasonable and the buy-in isn’t too big. I especially like gambling in the big, ostentatious gambling palaces that let me create the illusion that I’m James Bond and that the man next to me at the table and I are playing for stakes no less than the Future of the World. Creating and maintaining that illusion requires a wide and tall, subtly lighted room with plenty of tables working and a lively, vibrant background that has lots of coming and going from casino patrons, plus plenty of moving-around by the staff in the pit, and the steady hum of voices from around us while the cards fall on the green felt. I want a lively, engaged crowd around me to create that sense that HERE, we are on the knife’s edge between triumph and disaster. Although that’s the elevated image of My Ideal, make no mistake: I’ve shambled into my share of dusty backwater halls around the American west to find a game — including a memorable night in Elko, Nevada … but that’s another story. I’ve leaned my elbows on the padded edges in New Orleans and Reno and Atlantic City and, of course, in Las Vegas, not to mention some towns you may never have heard of, and they all have their appeal. But, earlier this year, I looked forward to my apotheosis as a gambler when, finally, my day would arrive, and I would step through the doors of the Casino Ruhl in Nice, on the French Riviera. The Counselor and I had booked two weeks to divide evenly between Italy and France. In our final seven days we’d be based in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a ten-minute taxi ride from Nice. I began to practice my basic blackjack strategy against the evening I would stand there on the carpet in that legendary joint and place my Euros on the felt amongst the bons-vivants of the greater world.
I studied my terminology and the local casino rules. Blackjack there is not, as one might think, vingt-et-un. It’s “Blackjack.” A “minimum bet” is “le mise.” Le mise for Blackjack is 10 Euros at Casino Ruhl. For me, at my basic skill level, that means I had to be armed with a minimum stake of two hundred Euros in order to hold out until the shoe might turn positive. Not that much different from a ten-dollar minimum in the States, but one wouldn’t want to lose track of the 50% difference between Euros and dollars!
The worst news is the time at which the gaming tables open and one can begin playing blackjack there: 10 p.m. Of course, they make up for it by the fact that the tables (les tables des jeux) are open until 4 a.m. — 5 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. That is, if you care to stagger out of the casino at 4 a.m. and try to find a bus back to your apartment at that hour. I reasoned that taxis would be standing by, and prepared accordingly, planning to have my address written out to hand to a driver rather than to try communicating in my ghastly French late at night.
I familiarized myself with the French equivalents of other necessary terms: Hit: carte, Split: coupe, Insurance: assurance.
Casino Ruhl requires that men wear a jacket. No challenge there. Guys, take my advice, and always wear a jacket when you play. There’s nothing more offensive than the sight of a man hitching himself half up off his stool to pull his wallet out of his hip pocket for more cash. It’s plus de classe’ to reach smoothly with the left hand into the right breast pocket for the billfold to extract a couple of Benjamins (or the Euro equivalent), rather than digging into the watch pocket of your jeans for that rolled-up wad of cash left over from the afternoon’s shopping trip. Always wear a jacket, even in far-flung Elko or on the outskirts of Albuquerque. Take it from me, it lends a higher air to the proceedings and it puts the dealers on the defensive, if nothing else.
As the days passed, we made the reservations for planes, hotels, trains, opera tickets (Verona, in the ancient Roman theater, as I related HERE), and, as we did, I began to visualize the fateful evening I’d arrive at the casino. Late as it might be, and as intimidated as I might feel, there on the French Riviera, I would play. After all, whether in French or in southern Louisianan, the game is more or less the same, and money talks. My mind raced ahead, trying to place myself in that scene: how different might it be from Caesar’s in Las Vegas or Harrah’s in New Orleans or Bob’s Truckstop Lunchpit in Tuscaloosa?
Finally, in late July, we were airborne, the first long leg of the trip, from LAX to Frankfurt: 12 hours on a Lufthansa flight, squeezed into middle seats that pretty much negated everything you’ve ever heard about the glamour of flying with the big international carriers. Still, amidst the hours of tedium, the pointless meals and even more pointless in-flight movies, I did manage a little fitful sleep. And I dreamed …
… it’s late in the evening — probably the early hours of the morning. I’m surrounded by the sophisticated energy of one of the world’s great gambling palaces. Beautiful, well-dressed women and even more beautiful better-dressed men stroll confidently among the tables, exchanging — in addition to Euros — bon mots. There’s all the energy and excitement one finds in even the most modest casino, but — somehow — elevated to a fine frisee’ of the unexpected. I find myself holding even against the house, waiting for the deck to turn positive and make a big play. I’m in the shortstop seat, the next to last seat to the left of the table. After having been focused solely on my cards, and trying to keep my count straight, there’s a momentary pause while someone changes a thousand-Euro note. I look around the table to get a sense of who are my playing partners. On the far right, over on “first base,” by gar! it’s George Lazenby — the original James Bond! Still svelte, debonaire, impeccably turned-out, he’s focused on his play, so he doesn’t catch me eyeing him. To his left, one place closer to me … yes, that’s Pierce Brosnan, looking extremely natty in a tuxedo jacket with an open collar. He seems to be holding the attention of six or seven women who are leaning over him, while, to HIS left, yes, it’s Roger Moore, looking not at all natty, but carrying off with extreme panache an amazing combination of blue blazer and — I’m not kidding here — pajama top. Between Moore and me (by now you expect it), is, of course, Daniel Craig. I take a quick glance at him, right into those steely blue eyes, and he sticks a small beretta knife between my ribs for bothering him, but I let it pass. Comes with the territory. I pocket the knife as a souvenir, draw a breath, and look around me again.
I know I have to look to my left, but I don’t want to spoil it. After all, there have been five Bonds, and I’ve already seen four of them. The original, the ultimo, the ur-Bond MUST be there.
And so I look.
It’s Woody Allen.
He looks at me and says, “I hate to get all these Kings in a French casino! Do I have to get Kings all the time? I feel like I’m just here to usher them to the guillotine!”
… and I awoke to daylight over central Europe. The plane was descending. Our two weeks in Italy and France were about to begin.
Friends, I never made it to that casino. I saw it as we rode a bus through Nice on our way back from a visit to the fascinating Provencal town of Vence, which — it occurs to me — I’ve not reported in this blog.
Remind me to write that blog some time soon. It was a glorious day.
There were, of course, plenty of nights I could have boarded the bus or gotten a taxi for the short trip to the Casino. On the other hand, those were all nights of velvety summer air in the narrow streets and the charming light of evening with the little restaurants and the views out over the harbor of Villefranche and the strolling musicians that I could spend with a certain brunette …
… I trust you won’t hold it against me that I played my cards another way. I, for one, have no regrets.
Have a happy new year. And as the old year passes, remember that you let some things go because the things you might have had are not really as good as what you do have. That’s what I know. Hony soyt quy mal sy pence.
© Brad Nixon 2011, 2017