by Steve Bourie Learn more about the author read more »
As a kid, growing up in New York, I remember the casino at Monte-Carlo as being the most famous in the world. There were songs and stories written about it; movies were made about it and, of course, there was the famous wedding of American actress Grace Kelly to Monaco’s Prince Rainier which brought even more notoriety to the area.
With such a fabled history, I had always wanted to visit Monte-Carlo and in April, 2007 my wife and I made our first trip there. It’s truly a beautiful area and here are some travel tips for when you’re ready to plan your own trip there, plus details on my attempt to “break the bank” at the casino.
Monaco is an independent principality located along the Mediterranean Sea in Southern Europe. Only three miles long by a half-mile wide, it is sandwiched between the French Riviera to the west and the Italian Riviera to the east. It is the world’s second smallest independent state after The Holy See (Vatican) and the population is 30,000, but only 7,000 people, known as Monégasques, are natural born natives.
Many people mistakenly believe that Monaco and Monte-Carlo are the same, but the principality is divided into five distinct districts and Monte-Carlo is but one of them. The other four are: Monaco-Ville, Fontvieille, Moneghetti and the Condamine.
The usual route to Monaco involves flying to Paris and that’s where we started our adventure. While in the “city of lights” you should definitely plan on staying a few days to take in the usual sights: Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dame, a walk down the Champs Elysées and a sight-seeing boat trip along the Seine.
The Paris subway, known locally as the Metro, is excellent and provides service to most any area of the city. On our arrival at the Charles de Gaulle Airport we took a bus directly into Paris, but after realizing how fast and easy it was to use the Metro, we took it back to the airport when we were ready to leave. Not only was it faster, it was also about half the cost of the bus.
You can save money on Metro fares by buying a pass at the ticket booth at any station. The “Paris Visite” pass entitles you to unlimited travel on the metro, buses and some other local train lines for your choice of one, two, three or five consecutive days. Along with the pass, you are also given a coupon book for discounts on various attractions.
There are three options for getting to Monte-Carlo from Paris: driving, flying or taking a train. Since we didn’t have a lot of time, the 600-mile drive was out of the question. Nice is the airport closest to Monte-Carlo and an Internet search revealed that Air France offered seven flights each day with an hour-and-a-half flying time and a round-trip fare of $144. The TGV (Train à grande vitesse), which is a high-speed train that travels at speeds up to 186 m.p.h., was the most intriguing option, but the travel time was still more than five hours and the cost was double that of flying.
Upon arrival at the Nice airport, you can take a 45-minute bus ride to Monte-Carlo for $22, or an eight-minute helicopter ride for about $80. In researching our trip on the official Monaco website at www.visitmonaco.com I learned that you can buy a one-year membership in Le Club Diamant Rouge de Monaco for $55 and it offers some great values.
Le Club is operated by the Monaco Government Tourist Office and its membership card provides free admission to all of Monaco’s museums, the aquarium and the casino, plus discounts or perks at several hotels, spas and other travel service providers. The free admissions alone amount to about $90 in savings, but best of all, card members receive a free helicopter flight from the Nice airport to Monaco and a 20% discount on the purchase of a flight back. There is a requirement that you stay at least one night at one of 10 participating hotels in order to buy the card, but chances are you will be staying at one of those hotels anyway.
For more details go to www.clubdiamantrouge.com (or call 800-371-CLUB) and while visiting the web site, be sure to check out the auctions link which allows you to bid on various hotel packages, some of which include dining options, spa visits and other extras.
My wife doesn’t like to fly and we have a close friend who was injured in a helicopter crash, so in planning our trip it was understandable that she was hesitant to opt for the helicopter ride. A friend of hers, however, pointed out that she should look at it as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a beautiful city from a fantastic point of view and, after giving it much thought, she finally agreed – provided we took the bus back to the airport. I agreed to her request and it’s rather ironic that in looking back on our trip we were in agreement that the helicopter flight was a major highlight and the return bus ride via the mountainous roads was scarier than the helicopter ride!
The www.visitmonaco.com web site has a wealth of information for visitors and I also found it useful for planning our hotel reservations. The site breaks down hotels by category, with four star deluxe being the highest and two star being the lowest. I started at the top and visited all five of the four star deluxe hotel web sites first. The rates started at about $525 per night, but I noticed that one property, Hotel Metropole, offered a special rate of about $320 per night. The rate was nonrefundable and required a 30-day minimum advance reservation, but the savings were substantial, so I booked it. Everything turned out great as both the hotel and room were beautiful, plus the service from all of the staff was excellent.
We arrived on Sunday afternoon and were leaving Tuesday morning, so we really didn’t have a lot of free time. Naturally, the casino was the top priority and I had made an appointment through the public relations department to meet a representative from the casino for a tour shortly after our arrival at the hotel.
The casinos of Monaco
Most people aren’t aware that there are actually five casinos in Monaco (you can access information about all of them at www.casinomontecarlo.com.) and the original Casino de Monte-Carlo is the largest. Just across the street is the Café de Paris, which functions as both a sidewalk cafe and restaurant, plus the rear of the facility houses the Casino Café de Paris with the area’s largest number of slot/video poker machines: 436.
Three blocks away, in the Fairmont Hotel, is the Sun Casino and about a mile further east, inside the Monte-Carlo Bay Resort, is the Bay Casino which has no table games, just slots and video poker. The fifth casino, open only during the summer months, is appropriately named Casino d’Été (Summer Casino) and can be found in Le Sporting Monte-Carlo, an entertainment complex housing restaurants, a disco and a live events center with a retractable roof.
All casinos are owned by the Société des Baines de Mer (SBM) which has been in existence since 1863 and is a publicly traded company with 69% of its shares owned by the Principality of Monaco. Employing more than 3,000 people, SBM also owns and operates five hotels, 30 restaurants, and several other sports club and entertainment venues in Monaco.
After a brief rest in our hotel room we walked three blocks to the main casino and went to the reception desk in the main lobby to ask about meeting our representative. All casino guests are required to stop at the desk to show their passport. Part of the reason for the ID check is to make sure you are not a native Monégasque, as they are not allowed into the casino. Guests must also be at least 18 years of age and pay an admission fee of 10 Euros (about $14). This is the only casino in Monaco that charges an entrance fee and it seems that many visitors are gawkers rather than gamblers and don’t mind paying the fee.
As a member of Le Club all we had to do was show our membership card and we were given free admission. Guests staying at many of the better hotels in Monaco, as well as previously rated players, are also given free admission.
If you haven’t been to Monte-Carlo, it’s possible that you may have already seen it in a James Bond movie. The casino, as well as Monaco’s main harbor area are shown in the James Bond movie, Goldeneye, starring Pierce Brosnan. The film includes an exterior shot of the casino when Bond arrives in his Aston Martin and he is then shown inside the casino playing Chemin de Fer (Baccarat) pitted against the evil female agent Xenia Onatopp. The main harbor area, Port Hercule, is shown in the next day’s action scene when Onatopp steals a helicopter from a battleship docked in the port.
The casino was also featured in Never Say Never Again, starring Sean Connery as James Bond. In one scene the action follows Domino Petachi, played by Kim Basinger, as she plays at a roulette table. Shortly, thereafter, Bond plays a high-stakes video game against the main villain, Maximilian Largo. Of course, Bond wins, and rather than collecting the $267,000 from Largo, he says “I’ll settle for one dance with Domino.” Connery and Basinger then perform their dance in what seems to be a ballroom, but in reality it is the atrium that houses the reception desk and the entrance into the casino’s gaming floors.
A call from the reception desk to the casino’s marketing department brought the guide for our tour down to the lobby in a few minutes. Her name was Nathalie and her primary job was that of a casino host. Similar to that position in a U.S. casino, her job was to greet players and accommodate their needs. As we walked through various areas of the casino it seemed that she was very good at her job because she seemed to know many of the players. To communicate with the casino’s international clientele, Nathalie was fluent in four languages and she had no problem switching from one to another when greeting her clients during our tour. I had assumed that most of the casino’s customers were from France, but she dispelled that myth when she told us that “the majority of our customers are from Italy.”
Casino de Monte-Carlo was originally built in 1863 on the site of an olive grove. It was the first casino to be built in Europe and was designed by Charles Garnier, who also designed the Paris Opera House. Nathalie explained that the first room we entered, Salle de l’Europe (European Room), was the original casino when the facility first opened and the other rooms were added on to the building throughout its 144-year history. The games in this room were all roulette, except for one called Trente et Quarante (30 and 40).
I had read about dress rules being enforced in the casino, with men required to wear jackets and ties, but the crowd in this room was dressed rather casually, including sneakers. I asked Nathalie about the dress code and she explained that it only applied for entrance to the casino’s back rooms, called Salons Privés (Private Salons), after 10 p.m. The American Room was the next area we visited and it housed all 11 of the casino’s blackjack tables, as well as one craps table.
As we entered the next gaming area, the White Room, it was quickly evident that this room housed all of the casino’s slots and video poker games (about 120 in total). As we checked out the assortment of games, Nathalie pointed out that, “unlike most American casinos, we have large windows to let in sunlight, plus clocks on the walls.” She also let us know that there was one other area of the casino with about 60 slots/video poker machines. It was situated directly by the main entrance just before reaching the reception desk so visitors didn’t have to pay a fee to play the games. An interesting fact is that in the U.S. the average casino makes about 70 percent of its profit from electronic machines, but in Monaco most players prefer table games and only about 40 percent of the profits are generated by machines.
The last area of the casino we visited was the Salons Privés. There is another entrance fee of 10 Euros required to enter this area but, once again, our membership in Le Club allowed us to visit this area at no extra charge. It was about 5:30 on a Sunday afternoon so it was pretty empty, but it was interesting to see these two additional gaming areas which are both named after architects who worked on the casino: Salle Touzet and Salle Medecin.
An interesting part of the Salle Medecin was that it featured Les Privés, a restaurant specializing in French food. Located at the rear of the room, it’s built on a terrace and has large picture windows showcasing panoramic views of the Mediterranean Sea just a few blocks away.
In one of the gaming rooms there was an antique elevator which served as a private entrance to the Cabaret de Monte-Carlo, a showroom located one floor below the casino. We didn’t get to see the Cabaret as it’s only open seasonally, but Nathalie did let us take a look into an even more private area of the casino.
“We have four ‘Super Private Rooms’ available for our higher limit players” she said as she proceeded to lead us into one that was discreetly located in the confines of the regular Private Salons. After leaving that room, she walked us out some doors and down a flight of stairs that led to a private entrance on the side of the casino. From that spot, we then proceeded to another of the special rooms. Evidently, this was the route for the exclusive “high rollers” who didn’t have to bother going through the main reception area. Surprisingly, these rooms were plainly decorated, but it was a wonderful treat to get access to an area that most visitors to the casino never get to see.
I asked Nathalie about comping programs for players and her reply was that it was similar to U.S. casinos, with different levels of players eligible for varying comps. She said that players were rated and given a designated players club card based on their “action.” Crystal was the entry level card which afforded free admission to the casino, followed by Silver, Gold and Diamond. She suggested that anyone wanting more information could send an email to their marketing department at [email protected].
To get a better idea of what betting levels were required for a complimentary room I later looked on the montecarlocasino website [now defunct] and saw that a free two-night stay required depositing a minimum of 8,000 Euros ($11,200) with the casino, plus gambling for a minimum of four hours per day with an average bet of at least 100 Euros ($140).
After touring the casino I must say that it was very different from what we have in the U.S. While many American casinos are imploded to make way for a more hip, modern gambling palace, the emphasis here was most definitely on the past. The rooms were all very ornate, with lots of marble, chandeliers, candelabras, mahogany woodwork, stained glass, frescoes, sculptures and many turn-of-the-century paintings adorning the walls. It was like stepping into a time warp and being transported back 100 years.
Old European elegance was in abundance: from the lavish decor, to the tuxedo-clad croupiers, to the strange and eery quietness. American casinos are usually bristling with loud noises emanating from both players and machines, but this casino was different. Most players were huddled around roulette tables, quietly placing their bets and hardly a peep could be heard from the blackjack tables. Even the lone craps table was deadly silent.
Yes, it was very different, but I liked it and I was ready to try my luck at the tables. Unfortunately, we were exhausted from our trip and I had to put off my play until the next day.
The following morning we slept late and went for a walk to explore the city. We took our map and headed for the city’s main harbor, Port Hercule. From there we headed to the Oceanographic Museum and Aquarium, which was a pleasant way to spend a few hours. There were several other places of interest we wanted to visit, but time was short and we needed to have a late lunch and then visit the three other casinos.
We chose the Café de Paris for our lunch destination and it is a must stop for anyone visiting Monaco. Situated directly across from the main casino, you can enjoy a cocktail, coffee or light snack at this outside cafe while watching the comings and goings at the world’s most famous gaming venue. A major highlight for us was seeing the large collection of exotic cars parked outside the casino. There was the usual assortment of Ferraris, Porsches and Lamborghinis, but we also witnessed the arrival of a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren. The SLR McLaren is is the world’s fastest automatic transmission automobile and has a retail selling price of slightly more than $450,000. Upon seeing that fascinating car, I believe I said “that’s a car you don’t see every day,” but I was wrong because we did see another one the next day in the window of the local Mercedes dealer. Yes, this was an interesting way to enjoy a leisurely lunch, but of course it came at a somewhat hefty price as we enjoyed a club sandwich priced at $16 (and it only came with three sections instead of four – what did they do with that other section?), plus an $11 bottle of Heineken beer.
After lunch we visited the other three casinos and it turned out that they all looked very much like their American counterparts. One surprise was that the two casinos with table games offered only American-style roulette with double-zero wheels, rather than the single-zero European game found in the big casino.
Later that night we headed back to the Monte-Carlo casino to try our luck Once again, the tables weren’t very crowded and our first stop was to check out the video poker.
The Jacks or Better game at the two Euro level ($2.80) was very good and, it turned out, the best VP game in the casino. It had a standard 9/6 paytable, except it paid 300 coins for a royal flush, rather than 250. Also, in order to get a higher payoff of 18,000 coins for the royal, rather than the standard 6,000, you had to make a maximum bet of 20 coins. If you bet one coin at a time, the return was 98.47%, but if you bet the maximum 20 coins, it brought the return up to 99.79% (because of the added bonus on the royal).
At the one Euro level ($1.40) the paytables dropped to a standard 8/5 (97.28% return) with 250 for the royal and 4,000 when you bet the maximum five coins, for .50 Euros it was lowered to 7/5 (96.15%) and for .20 Euros, the paytable dropped to 6/5 (95.00%).
We played one coin at a time on the two Euro game, but stopped about 20 minutes later after losing 40 Euros. It should be pointed out that you need to exchange dollars for Euros at the main cashier cage before gambling. However, the conversion rate is very good because you don’t have to pay the usual transaction fee which most currency exchanges charge.
I didn’t have a lot of cash with me, but I definitely wanted to play some roulette and I figured I’d take a shot with the last 60 Euros ($84) left in my gambling bankroll. Normally, I wouldn’t play roulette in a casino, but here they had a much better game than found in most U.S. casinos.
All of the tables had single-zero wheels which cut the house edge down to 2.70%, rather than the 5.26% casino advantage you would face on a double-zero wheel. Even better, if you played any even money bet: odd/even; high/low; or red/black; and the ball landed in zero, you only lost half of your bet. This brought the casino’s edge on these bets down to 1.35%, making it the best roulette game you can find.
As it turned out there were two types of roulette games offered: English and European. The only difference between the two was in the kind of chips that were used on the table. In the European version all of the chips at the table must represent their actual value. In other words, the chips were all 5 Euros, 10 Euros, 25 Euros, etc. The English version, however, was similar to the game found in U.S. casinos where the chips can represent any value and each person has their own uniquely colored chips. Other than that one difference, the games were identical.
Again, I don’t play roulette very often, but I sometimes get matchplay vouchers that need to be played only on roulette and my usual method is to bet on red or black. Also, rather than trying to guess which color to play, I simply bet the same color that came in on the previous spin. Roulette is purely a game of luck and this method is no better or worse than any other method for choosing what to bet, but it does save me the dread of deciding what to do on each spin. Another thing I like about this method is that if I lose, I can blame it on the system, rather than myself, for picking the wrong color. My wife didn’t want to play or watch, so I told her what I was planning to do, left her at a nearby seat and then headed over to the European game.
Of course, 60 Euros isn’t a big bankroll, but I was sure that with a little bit of luck I too could become as famous as Joseph Jaggers, otherwise known as “The Man Who Broke The Bank at Monte-Carlo.” In 1873, Jaggers, an English engineer, hired people to secretly record the outcome of every spin at each roulette table and then analyzed the results. Believing he found a “biased” wheel in which certain numbers won more often than others, Jaggers parlayed his hunch into an impressive fortune over the course of three days. The casino finally figured out what he was doing and took countermeasures such as switching wheels and replacing frets (the dividers between the numbers). Denied his advantage, Jaggers lost back some of his winnings, but he still left the casino with more than $3 million (in today’s dollars) and never returned.
In reality, “breaking the bank at Monte-Carlo” doesn’t mean that someone wins all of the casino’s money – that has never happened. The phrase simply means that all of the chips at a particular roulette table have been won by a player and the chips must be replenished from the casino’s reserves. The table is closed while a new supply of chips is brought over and then the game continues.
Okay, maybe I would need more than a little bit of luck, but evidently, I didn’t have to win all of the casino’s money, just all of the chips on the table, and this made my job much simpler. A look at the placard by the table showed that the minimum bet was only five Euros – well within my bankroll’s range – so I was ready to begin my quest! I bought in for 60 Euros right at the table and I was given 12 chips, valued at five Euros each.
The first thing I noticed was that the table was much wider than an American table and the players were seated on two sides of the table, rather than on one side as in U.S. casinos. Also, the croupiers were placed at both short ends of the table. In the U.S. the roulette staff would be working only on the long side of the table that is located inside the pit area.
I looked at the table’s electronic display board to see what color had just won and I was eager to bet on it to repeat. I soon discovered that the betting square I wanted was on the opposite side of the table and I couldn’t reach it. Rather than asking the croupier for help, I gently tossed my chip across the felt and it landed exactly in the right spot, but I knew this was going to be a problem.
When that bet lost, the next color I had to bet was on my side and that made things easy. However, when that lost, I needed to make my bet back on the other side and I decided to ask the croupier for help in placing the bet. In response, he handed me one of the little sticks they use to move the chips around the table and jokingly said “we make you work at this table!” I then used the stick whenever I had to place a bet on the other side of the table and I was having fun shoving my chips around the table. Regrettably, that was the only fun I had because the winning colors alternated between red and black for nine of the first 10 spins and I busted out within 15 minutes. Oh well, there went my dreams of “breaking the bank” and buying my very own SLR McLaren.
A few minutes later, I walked over to break the news to my wife and I could see that she wasn’t the least bit fazed, by my stroke of bad luck. “That was a bad idea to bet that way,” she said. “But it wasn’t my fault, it was the system’s fault,” I replied. “It could just as easily have gone the other way with a lot of repeat colors winning. I just had some bad timing.”
“Bad timing? Sure, whatever you say, let’s go,” she answered. As we left the casino, hand-in-hand, I turned around to take one last look at the table where I had played and I couldn’t help but notice on the display board that red had just come in five times in a row. “See!,” I said, “it wasn’t such a bad system after all.” Watch out Monte-Carlo, I’ll be back!