02.12.2008 - 03.12.2008 11 °C
The power of luck is a curious thing. Make a one man weep, make another man sing.
As Huey Lewis almost said.
There's no doubt in my mind that Huey would have rewritten the words to his 80s 'classic' had he just emerged bleary eyed from a Macau casino.
Instead luck decided that it should be me who should find himself hailing a cab outside The Venetian Macao on a bright and nippy December morning, having spent all night amongst the gambling tables and slot machines of perhaps the gaudiest building ever built in Asia.
And how did I find myself in Macau in the first place? Pure chance.
There I am, happily strolling south on Nathan Road in Kowloon, Hong Kong, when I bumped into Pato, a Chilean traveller I had met in Irkutsk a month and a half before. Pato was with a friend he'd met elsewhere in Asia, and together they told me stories of how they had won, lost and then won again, a tidy pot of cash by gambling the previous night away in Macau.
They were really keen to go back, and take me along for the adventure. OK, I think first we set up a deeply contrived device to help us decide whether we were going or not - something lame like "If we see a deck of cards in the next ten minutes then it's a sign we must go!" - but fate had already grabbed us by the wallets and was silently dragging us towards the ferry terminal.
Macau is only an hour away from Hong Kong by catamaran, and your visit is rewarded with a stamp in your passport. Visas and immigration stamps are gold amongst most traveller types, collected with the same enthusiasm that war vets display medals or Russian mafia hitmen wear tattoos. The dangling carrot of two more marks in my passport was the deal clincher.
And so we went.
Macau is all about gambling. 70% of the Macau's GDP comes directly from gambling taxes. Thought Las Vegas or Monte Carlo were the betting capitals of the world? Nope, not even close. Macau is streets ahead in terms of turnover, and is expanding still further with more colossal gambling dens under construction.
Already an established money pit, The Venetian Macao was our home for the night. First thing that hits you about the place, apart from the tacky-as-anything reconstructed canals around the outer edge of the main buidling, is that The Venetian is mammoth. It's the fourth largest building in the whole wide world, based on floor space. I don't know exactly how much of that is given over to the hotel, but the casino side of the operation is just vast - well over half a million square foot.
Huge banks of slot machines, rows and rows of gambling tables, as well as bars, restaurants, an indoor music venue... it's all set up to drain you of as much money in as short a time as possible. I was a backpacker, what on earth was I doing here?
But I hadn't totally lost the plot. After getting off the catamaran, I'd taken some cash out of the first ATM I saw. 500 Macau dollars. A little over 50 quid. Not exactly a high roller, but that was it. That had to stretch through the entire night.
Some hope. Most of the tables were set up for baccarat, and had a minimum bet of $100. Even if I worked out exactly how the game worked, i'd almost certainly get wiped out in seconds. I gave the slot machines a quick go, but they were unlike any slot you'd find lurking in the corner of a British pub. With their flashing lights and weird symbols, they confused me no end. And so with a fifth of my nightly fund already now resting inside one of these coin receptacles, I crept away in search of another game.
I decided to join Pato and his friend at the electronic roulette table. Hey, I even knew how this one worked. You pick a number, bet some money on the little white ball falling on that number, and collect your winnings.
Or, you work out this incredibly complex strategy for predicting the next number to come up - the casino even provides you with paper and pens so you can plot it all out - and, once settled on a plan of action, go all in and clean up.
What a rip. As anyone who sat through GCSE Maths should remember, when you've two totally independent events (in this case, two rounds of roulette) the ball is no more likely to drop into one pocket than another. Regardless of what that little round bastard did the previous round! Yet, you'd be amazed at the excuses gamblers come up with for why it must, MUST, land on red 27 this time.
It's infectious. And I fell into this trap face first. Black 8, no red 23, no that was last time, er must be a black this time, we've had 2 reds in a row, no red 32 again, no black 15... no green 0... GREEN? Where'd green come from? Oh, red again, black, black, red, red, red, black, red, red, black, bl... out of cash.
It probably took a mere ten minutes for me to lose it all. I was so busy chasing numbers, trying to predict the next pocket, I didn't realise that my modest pot of money was evaporating at a stupendous rate. And that was that.
It was probably not even 1am. I had no means of leaving Macau, the first boat back to Hong Kong wasn't until 7. And so I watched. A lot. I worked my way around the tables, trying to work out just what was going on in each game. I felt the intense excitement that built up when a gambler was doing well, and shared in their despair as they lost everything after playing that one hand too many. It was fascinating. Wow, do the Chinese like to bet.
The VIP baccarat tables were overflowing with emotion. Super high stakes, people with thousands upon thousands of dollars invested, all relying on the deal of a card or two. And the screams. Whenever anyone won big time, they really did let every other soul in the casino know about it. Wild whooping and shouting, other players grinning, even the dealers seemed to glow a bit.
After a while though, it all gets a bit much. The overpowering stink of money, combined with the utterly tasteless excess of the surroundings, creates one big sleazy dirty funk. The hangers on within the casino, those 'professionals' who come to work the gamblers rather than the tables, are tolerated by staff for much of the night (no doubt some kind of symbiotic deal has been struck) until around dawn - when in a scene straight out of a Benny Hill sketch, security men literally chase them off the gaming floor. It's a desperate sight.
Around 6am, having covered every one of the 500,000 square feet, I returned to the electronic roulette table. Pato was still there, winning, going strong. I left him to it, and later heard that he'd finished that morning well on top. He'd beaten the casino, even if in the long run we're not talking about a fortune.
But the casino had definitely squashed me, and I jumped in the first cab I could find and headed back to the port. What a funny place Macau is, totally reliant the addictive desire for easy money.
Never forget that it is the casino who is boss, I told myself when safely back in Hong Kong, they are running the show. They're the ones who have done all the planning, the calculating, worked out all the angles. The only thing you have on your side is luck, and sometimes that's not worth a penny.