I’m not entirely sure when exactly it was that I caught the casino bug. As a child, I hardly knew gambling existed. One of my fondest memories at primary school was the time I successfully disputed my score on an end-of-term maths test as I’d been stumped by a probability question about playing cards – ‘I have absolutely no idea what’s in a pack of cards,’ the ten-year-old me squealed to the teacher in horror.
Yet as an adult there’s something about the atmosphere of casinos that fascinates me. Perhaps it’s my love for Tennessee Williams (my favourite ever playwright), who always presented them as places of romance and despair, dreamers and deviants. It’s that sense of everyone coming together to participate in their own guilty little secret that appeals to my dark side.
To be fair, none of that bohemian stuff really applies to the modern casino: London’s West End go for a much cleaner image, with their Instagram-friendly interiors and cocktail lounges. My favourite (don’t laugh) is probably the Hippodrome in the West End. Yes, it’s camp and classless, but isn’t that part of the charm?
The Hippodrome was my secret camp-out during last year’s World Cup. Forget queuing for the loos and spilled pints: in the cocktail lounge I could actually watch the games in peace. There was even a secret outdoor terrace to toast the good times afterwards – I’ll take that over Shoreditch BoxPark anytime.
Casinos have other advantages too, even for those who don’t play the tables. For a start, they’re one of the few places in London that serve passable food after midnight – perfect if you need to sober up before heading home. Good news, too, if you smoke: West End casinos are just about the only places left that don’t treat smokers like social lepers (the Hippodrome, in particular, has a charming smoking terrace).
As for the gambling, I tend to stick to blackjack. It’s easy to learn and the odds are most favourable (as a rule of thumb, the house makes its money from human-frailty rather than probability: they’re anticipating that winners will get too greedy, and that unlucky types will double down to chase their losses). And avoid the fixed-odds machines: they’re antisocial and they’re taking croupiers’ jobs.
Just remember, though, the West End isn’t Vegas: when the waitresses offer to bring you a drink, they’re actually expecting you to pay for it (in Sin City, you only have to tip the server). Nevertheless, though, it still has its charm. Take a punt: you won’t regret it.
Four London casinos worth visiting:
The Hippodrome, Leicester Square
In my view, it’s the best casino in London. I also respect how they’ve invested in bringing Vegas-style big entertainment to the West End, betting the house on a big-budget stage adaptation of male strip-fest Magic Mike. Presumably it’s more popular with the hen nights than their previous entertainment offer: an evening with Nigel Farage.
Les Ambassadeurs, Park Lane
Les A – as it likes to be called – claims to have hosted the upper crust of British society for over 300 years. Like most Mayfair casinos, it’s strictly members only but they do have discretion on the door to give new players a (free) ‘trial membership’. After a few questions, I just about managed to blag it on a slow Saturday afternoon. Worth it for the slightly self-conscious McMafia feel to the place.
The Empire, Leicester Square
Like the Hippodrome, it’s big, tacky and open-to-anyone – all of which score points with me. Apparently it’s known for having one of the best poker lounges in London. The Carlsberg sports bar is a good place to watch a Premier League title clash without the shouty crowds you’d get anywhere else.
The Ritz Club, Piccadilly
Easily the most upmarket of the London casinos, the Ritz Club (situated just underneath the hotel) doesn’t shy away from showing off, with arresting décor which would make an oligarch blush. The Club is particularly proud of its extravagant salle privies – private suites which cater for those who like to gamble with a little more discretion (we can only speculate who that might include…). Its facilities, including the restaurant and cigar lounge – are open to Club members and hotel guests.