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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 April 2004, 12:23 GMT 13:23 UK
Breaking the bank at Blackpool casino
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News Online politics reporter

Plans to allow Las Vegas style gambling in the UK could provide a major economic boost to seaside resorts such as Blackpool. BBC News Online tried its luck at one of the town's casinos.

Sean Connery
The Bond spirit stalks the casino
Just 3% of the British population have set foot inside a casino.

Unlike in the US, where roulette, blackjack and slots are the mainstream gamblers' punt of choice, the British have always preferred a flutter on the horses or football.

As a result, the casino retains an air of mystery.

The ghost of James Bond stalks the whole experience - the idea of risking it all on the spin of a roulette wheel, emerging at the break of dawn, a bow tie hanging loose around your neck, and a fat wad of notes in your hand.

In reality, most UK casinos have all the exotic allure of a motorway service station.

The casino I attend in Blackpool is no exception.

Hint of glamour

It is hard to sustain James Bond fantasies on a rain-lashed Saturday night on Blackpool's Golden Mile.

Roulette wheel
Plans to allow Las Vegas-style casinos in every UK city could lead to a surge in problem gambling
Particularly when your casino of choice is part of a pyramid-shaped family-fun emporium called the Sandcastle.

Once inside, the first thing you notice is - not the dinner-suited glitterati - but a large vending machine.

Sean Connery, you suspect, never took a break from the tables to stock up on cheesy Wotsits and chocolate bars.

A few older couples have made the effort to dress up, but with piped soft rock music and giant video screens, the atmosphere is more TGI Fridays than Monte Carlo.

And yet a hint of glamour remains.

Bad form

You still have to join up 24 hours before you are allowed to gamble (although this could change if the government gets its way), adding to the sense of occasion.

On the night we visit, a quarter of the cavernous gaming area has been roped off for a charity poker tournament, which seems to have attracted a reassuringly seedy and hard-bitten crowd.

After a quick drink in the bar, we decide to hit one of the 11 roulette tables.

Elbowing myself into position at the table, I self-consciously toss a couple of 20 pound notes on to the green baize and ask for a "colour".

For a few agonising seconds my hard-earned wedge lies ignored on the table, before a bored-looking croupier pushes a pile of red chips my way.

Apparently it's bad form to hand over the cash directly from hand to hand.

Losing streak

I carefully spread my chips around a few black numbers, having spotted on the electronic screens that sit next to each table that black hasn't been up for a while.

Inevitably, the next number that comes up is red.

I try my luck with some red numbers. It comes up black.

I put what's left of my chips on red. It comes up black again.

Time for a rethink.

After a quick visit to the cashpoint, handily situated at the edge of the gaming area, I think about trying my hand on the blackjack table, but can't get a seat.

Curiously there appear to be a greater number of virtual roulette machines, where punters can follow the action at the tables via a video link, than the real thing.

The 10 slot machines currently allowed under UK gaming laws are also tucked away in a corner of the room.

But I decide to give these options a miss and join my friends on the 50p minimum stake table, where things have apparently been going rather well.

Evening dress

Predictably, my arrival sparks an unprecedented run of losses and we are just about to call it a day when a change of croupier sends a frisson around the table.

The house is on the market and my credit cards are all cut up, we are moving in with my mother
They are a superstitious lot, these casino-dwellers.

Unlike the other croupiers, who seem to have taken their dress code from the local bookmakers, the new arrival is wearing a black evening dress.

On a whim, I put my chips on 2, 4 and 6. Two comes up. A gratifyingly large pile of yellow chips is pushed my way.

At last, I think, we are in business.

But within seconds I've lost the lot.

Big winnings

Devotees of roulette say it has the best odds in gambling but it is also a frighteningly efficient way to lose money.

Joanne, a 34-year-old special needs teacher, who has been visiting casinos for ten years, has had rather more luck than me and claims to be 50 in profit.

She says the casino is a great place to round off an evening (This casino is open to 0400 on Saturdays) and waxes lyrical about spreading her winnings out on the kitchen table, after a particularly successful session.

"The most I have ever won is 700, at a casino in London. We were only in there for about five minutes," she says.

Jim, a 33-year-old business executive, says he has "broken even" this evening.

"You have to know when to stop. It's very easy to put 100 down and lose it in 10 minutes."

As I emerge into the damp casino car park 80 poorer I am beginning to see what he means.

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