It must be admitted—no matter how down-to-earth, no matter how sensitive and caring and cuddly he is—every man has at one time or another dreamed of being James Bond. These dreams can take many forms, depending on your favorite scenes, but the phenomenon is probably universal. OK, maybe the Dalai Lama has never felt a need to say, “My name is Lama, Dalai Lama,” but the rest of us just can’t resist the idea.
As for myself, Mr. Bond is at his coolest and most Bondish when he is in a casino, his bow tie either impeccably circling his neck or perhaps, later in the evening, hanging in two weird-looking squiggly black lines down his dickey. Scratch that, I don’t suppose Bond wears a dickey. Anyway, that’s one of the reasons I’ve always insisted on tying my own bow tie: a pitiful play for Bondness. Often, I can be seen at formal events, just before they end, with a vodka martini in hand and my bow tie hanging down my shirt (nor do I wear a dickey). This invariably doesn’t work at all. I have yet to be approached by Ursula Andress.
But, then, what was missing, you see, was the casino. Since I was recently in Monaco, I figured this was the perfect place to try out the James Bond thing (although, sadly, I didn’t have my tuxedo with me—I had to make do with a dark suit).
Monaco is Europe’s second-smallest country (after Vatican City). It is also boasts, by far, the highest per-capita rate of millionaires of any country in the world.
Monaco used to be just a geopolitical oddity in 19th-century Europe, a crumb left behind after the festivities of the Napoleonic Wars. Then, in 1856, Prince Charles III decided that a casino would be a great way to raise some cash. After futzing around with some less-than-spectacular buildings in the old town, he decided to use an empty hilltop. (Empty hilltops are rare in countries that measure roughly one square mile, but he found one.) He named the hill after himself: “Monte Carlo,” or “Mount Charles.” He then asked the great French architect Charles Garnier to work some baroque magic, and the casino was built in 1878.
Like Garnier’s greatest creation, the Paris Opera House, the casino is breathtaking. Even the entry hall is overwhelming, with its towering volume and its intricately carved walls and ceiling. In order to enter the casino itself, you have to tear your eyes away from the architecture, show your ID, and pay 10 euros, after which they stamp your hand with a UV stamp and give you a free plastic cup full of Budweiser … or, at least, that’s what they would do if my old college friend Bob were running it. Luckily, he is not.
You are then allowed to proceed into the main hall, which is a hymn in wood and velvet. A number of roulette and baccarat tables dot the roomscape, where well-dressed rich people circulate discreetly.
The only other casinos I’ve ever been in were in the United States, and they were largely populated by overweight AARP members in fluorescent jogging suits, toting buckets of quarters. James Bond would have looked distinctly out of place in them. In Monte Carlo, however, he would fit right in. Even the Italians in jeans and T-shirts looked good. (It should be noted, however, that rich Italian men, and all Italian women, have some kind of supernatural ability to dress far better than you could ever dress, even if they’re wearing rags.)
The tables range from those with a 10-euro minimum to those with a minimum that looked pretty maximum to me. The baccarat tables showed sums that could have more easily been posted in scientific notation. There were some blackjack tables farther back, and, yes, a room with slot machines (and angels carved into the ceiling), which was populated by four Japanese tourists and an old man with a long white ponytail. There are also the private gaming rooms, where spies get together to stare into each other’s eyes and gamble away the world’s security. At least, I suppose so. They wouldn’t let me in to check.
Since I take my obligations to my readers very seriously, it was clear that I couldn’t make a foray into the casino without participating in the gaming experience. Otherwise, my report would hardly be complete, now would it? As I had come with a friend, I convinced him that we both needed to lose some money. We therefore went to get chips. You can only get chips with cash, but you can get cash next to the guy who gives you chips. The logic of this escapes me, but I assumed James Bond would understand it, so I just went with the flow and got my chips.
We decided on roulette as the least complicated way to lose our money, and headed over to the small-stakes table (10-euro minimum). There were a few people around it, and four different croupiers. Three of these men sat around the table and wielded long polished wood sticks with plastic things on the end—kind of like classy pooper-scoopers. They manipulated chips all over the table with these things, moving with a fluidity one usually only observes in martial-arts films and ferrets. The chips flew all over, apparantly as a result of barely whispered instructions by the more worldly people sitting near us. Since I didn’t know how to talk to the croupiers using this subtle language, I just put my bets on the one part of the table I could reach on my own.
The fourth croupier sat in this chair at the head of the table, up near the roulette wheel itself, which seemed to be made of a sort of tawny gold. The wheel spun surprisingly slowly, while one of the croupiers sent the ball whizzing around in the opposite direction. As soon as he did this, the chips accelerated their dance around the table and the pooper-scoopers flashed like wooden lightning bolts. The croupiers spoke in curt, polite sentences, switching effortlessly between French and Italian, the occasional smile flashing on their thin lips.
Since the only part of the table I could reach without having to stretch, or converse with a croupier, was the bit where one bets on the color red, I kept betting on red. Of course, this meant that black came up … again and again and again. As I watched my pitiful pile of chips dwindle to nothing (very pretty chips, by the way), one of those disgustingly fashionable Italian men came up and threw a couple of 500-euro bills on the table. One of the croupiers immediately changed them into chips. (I thought you had to go to the desk at the back to do this, but apparently if you can flip a thousand in cash on the table, you’re allowed to take some shortcuts.) He issued a terse set of instructions to the croupier, who flicked the chips onto the indicated places, then verified their position with his pooper-scooper. All of his numbers lost (he should have just played black), so he threw another grand onto the table and tried again. He lost that too, shrugged, and went to try another table.
Some people have a lot of money.
My friend and I were both down to our last chips, and I decided that I’d kick myself forever if I were to switch from my astute strategy (“Red!”) and then lose, so I plonked down my last chips on red, while he put his on the number two.
Of course, two (which is black) came up, and he won 750 euros.
“I’ll buy you a drink,” he said.
“Damn straight you will,” I replied, and we left.
Monaco is more than the casino. There are a lot of other interesting things there, such as the aquarium and a museum with dolls and automatons, but you’ll end up losing all your money before you can do anything else. Then you’ll have to make your way back to some less surrealistic place, some place inhabited by normal people. There’s a billboard—an entire billboard, mind you—on one of the main streets in Monaco that asks, “Need insurance for your super-yacht?” Where else in the world would it be worthwhile to put up a billboard for super-yacht insurance? You might slip an ad into Rich Bastard Living magazine, but a billboard? This leaves you standing in the street near all the Bentleys and Rolls-Royces, contemplating the fact that you most definitely don’t need insurance for your super-yacht, that in fact you don’t even have enough cash in your pocket for cab fare back to the hotel, and that it’s about time to go home.
That’s when you’ll most regret not wearing a tuxedo, because if you were wearing one, you could untie your bow tie and let it hang down your dickeyless front and practice drawing your Walther PPK in front of your hotel mirror.