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national | miscellaneous | feature Monday March 13, 2006 10:22 by Gambler Anonymous - 808 The Bass Queen (four of a kind) Heads-up at the last table in the WSOP. six six six, six six six (six of a kind)
The end of casinos and card rooms in Ireland?
About four years ago I got a job working for security in a large Vegas-style casino in Auckland, New Zealand. On my first morning I was introduced to the manager and other people I would be working with, handed a swipe pass, and given a list of my daily duties. The casino and adjoining conference centre and hotel were open 24 hours, all year round, and employed roughly 2,000 people in total. The majority of these were food/drink and cleaning staff on three rotating eight hour shifts. I had started on a Monday morning at 8am, and after being shown the ropes in the control room, my team leader asked me if I'd like to go on a tour of the gaming floor. Why not, I replied.
So off we went down to the enormous gaming floor. Bear in mind this was before 9am on a Monday, so I expected the place to be near empty, maybe a few cleaners hoovering the deep green carpets or polishing the roulette wheels in anticipation of a few people drifting in later on in the afternoon. Not a bit of it. Tables were full, cards being dealt, lights flashing and buzzers sounding, chips being stacked and counted. The "one armed bandit" areas were the worst. Red-eyed, gaunt, pasty, slouching, with their change bucket in one hand and the other eternally poised over the button, these people looked like they'd been there all night, all week, all their lives.
This was in huge contrast to the other "casinos" I'd previously been in - namely the Merrion, and the Jackpot (now closed, as far as I know) on Montague Street. These were card rooms, with no more than 60 people playing in a knockout Texas Hold'em tournament. There was no alcohol, they certainly werent open 24 hours, and the atmosphere was intimate and reasonably relaxed. They were operating in a legal grey area, and even though I'd been playing poker for a good while with friends in private house games, very few people seemed aware of their existence. In the last four years though, there's been a huge upsurge in people playing poker, and the casinos have multiplied in Dublin, and beyond.
As I understand it, the ubiquitous Minister for Justice and regular reader of Indymedia, Michael McDowell, is planning to shut down all the card rooms and casinos in Ireland. I have ambivalent feelings about this proposal. Personally I think it will be impossible for him to close them down fully anyway, now the genie has been let out of the bottle they'll probably be driven underground. But I'll come to that later.
I'd generally be of the opinion that you should be allowed to make choices in life to do what you want, as long as you dont interfere with other people's freedom to make those choices too. You should be responsible and intelligent enough to look after your own decisions and the consequences. Therefore I'd always thought that people should be allowed gamble with their money if they want. Its their decision, they know what happens if they lose it, and their actions are not interfering with others.
Working for the Security department obviously warped this viewpoint somewhat. Initially collating the reports on the seedy underbelly of the casino were fascinating, and if I'd worked there longer my accumulated tales could easily be turned into a pulpy true crime bestseller. Drugs, prostitution, fights, gangs; tasty ingredients in a very nasty pie.
But after a short while the "glamour" of it wore off and scanning the details of the weekend incidents made for extremely depressing reading. A person banned for two years for throwing a drink in a dealer's face when he was repeatedly dealt bad cards. A couple thrown out for having sex behind the gaming machines. Another couple arrested for leaving their two young kids locked in the car down in the carpark while they went gambling (a regular occurance, I was informed). A pleading letter from the family of a compulsive gambler begging the casino to bar him, after he'd sold both cars and the empty grandparents house to feed his blackjack habit - the casino couldn't do anything for them because he hadnt broken any of the casino regulations. And so on.
I guess here is the crux of the matter. How much of individual liberty and choice is dictated by external forces? When people are claiming they're making a choice solely on their own, where does advertising, peer pressure and even your own history or personality come into it? How many bad choices do people make, before they fully realise they're destroying themselves or their families? The casino did print and distribute leaflets about problem gambling, but the amount of money and display space devoted to this in comparison to advertising and promotion of gaming was insignificant. Likewise with the bookies in this country. Paddy Power pull regular stunts or run controversial campaigns to draw the punters in, but I dont think I've ever seen the words "problem gambling" or "seeking help" appear in one of their full page press ads.
I can understand how it would be easy to succumb to the buzz of the turn of a card. One night in the Jackpot, on the last two tables in a 60 person tournament, the flop came down J J K, then Q, then A - with a pair of jacks in my hand, making four of a kind - the best possible hand, or "the Nuts". Around me there was a full house, two straights and a couple of two pairs, most of whom stayed until the river (the end of the betting). The phrase "my heart was in my mouth" was never more fitting at that time, as the adrenalin rush surged into every nerve of my body. I more than quadrupled my chips in a single go and went on to win 500 quid after putting in 40. I walked back into town an hour or so later with this intense mix of elation and exhaustion, with my brain racing at a million miles an hour.
But gambling is like any buzz. Like drink or drugs, its ok if its done in moderation. When it becomes an obsession and the one single (or primary) driving factor of your life, you're in trouble. So where's the middle ground between the right to throw your money the way of the dealer, and someone else (in this case the state) stepping in and completely stopping you in case a situation arises where you're acting completely irresponsibly to the detriment of yourself and others? I hate using the term "nanny state" because it makes me thinks of the tobacco lobby arseholes who claimed their "civil liberties" to smoke chemicals in my face was being infringed. But in the case of the casinos, I think that shutting them down is not the answer, and McDowell should step back a bit from this threat.
Casinos and gambling are illegal in Ireland but somehow managed to operate under a loophole related to private members clubs. This never made much sense to me; how something illegal was seemingly alright if you made everyone who came in a member. Maybe some entrepeneur will open a luxurious crack house in Dublin 2 and get away with it because he (or she!) gives everyone who comes in a laminated card with their name on it.
Joking aside, there is space for the cardrooms to exist. The members club loophole will have to be closed in relation to casinos. Legislation could be drafted in that outlaws completely random games, like the roulette wheel and the slot machine, but facilitates games of some knowledge and skill like Hold'em or Omaha. Cash games should go, but tournaments with limited re-buys should stay. This means that when you are knocked out, you have to call it a night, rather than staying there frustrated and continously re-buying chips straight off the dealer. There should be no alcohol served, and anyone who is intoxicated should not be allowed in (drunks are a pain in the arse to play with anyway). The clubs should have a specified closing time and a "drinking up" time 90 minutes beforehand, where there are no new tournaments started and no re-buys. Measures like these could be discussed in a research or working group, which could include groups like Gamblers Anonymous as well as the casino owners and punters. This way a common ground could be found between the current situation and the proposed elimination of all casinos.
As I've mentioned earlier, I think that if the clubs are completely shut down, they will only move underground. An enormous amount of hotels, colleges, pubs, clubs and halls now run regular poker nights. Its gone far beyond a small, niche activity that can be completely suppressed. Even McDowell's pal Dermot Desmond sank millions into his Sporting Emporium off Grafton Street. It seems highly unlikely he will give it up without some resistance. If the clubs do move out of the spotlight and into the black economy, who's to say where the money might go? It could end up in the hands of McDowell's republican enemies, or worse yet, used to fund groups of the open-toed sandal-wearing and muesli-eating variety who have it in for him!