THE BRITISH love to gamble. Dogs, horses, football, almost anything that moves attracts the public's betting fancy. What is less celebrated is their enthusiasm for casino gambling.
In the last financial year gamblers staked pounds 1,525m at roulette, still the most popular casino game in Britain. The overall "drop", or money exchanged for chips, rose to a record pounds 2,230m, a rise of 8 per cent, according to the Gaming Board for Great Britain's annual report, published yesterday. London's 21 casinos took two-thirds of the money, or pounds 1,486m, a rise of 10 per cent.
After paying out the winners, the casinos' overall "win" was more than pounds 400m - not bad going, one might say, in a time of recession.
Yet, despite years of handsome wins, casinos in Britain remain a secret society. Hardly anyone knows what goes on behind the elegant facades of those half-dozen Mayfair town houses which offer some of the highest stakes gaming in the world.
For in gambling, the besetting English sin is hypocrisy. Nowhere is the pretence that gambling is not really part of our culture more suspect than in casino regulation. Its motivating spirit stems far more from mandarin ideas of protecting people from themselves than from popular taste.
Thus, in Britain's casinos there is no entertainment, no music, no slot machines (apart from two per casino), no drinks at the table, restricted hours of play and, above all, the absurd rule that you must sign on 48 hours in advance if you want to play, in case (perish the thought) someone might walk into a casino off the street just on impulse. This rule is particularly irksome to overseas visitors.
The regulation of casino gambling by the Gaming Board, which comes under the Home Office, is not open to scrutiny or debate. In its strictness and privacy the board has resembled a Star Chamber - not an inappropriate comparison, given that until the Gaming Act of 1968 most regulations followed the prohibitions to protect archery dating from Henry VIII. And the casino industry itself, though it turns over millions nightly, and in its huge earnings of foreign currency might be considered a national treasure, it is so scared of speaking out that it has almost lost its voice.
Recently, however, the Gaming Board has begun to ease its application of certain rules, most significantly on licensing. Previously, if a casino was judged by the board not "fit and proper" to hold a gaming licence, it was equivalent to the death sentence. The whole operation was liable to be shut down, lock, stock and limousines: the managers were barred for life, staff lost their jobs, and the casino premises might be disqualified for a period of years.
Such sentences were handed down even for technical (as opposed to criminal) offences, such as infringement of cheque cashing procedures, credit regulations and so on; such reasons were behind the closure at the start of the Eighties of the Playboy casino. The only appeal was to the courts, but this was a long, expensive and very uncertain remedy. …