Fish and Chips: Goa’s gaming experience

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Casino is no longer a bad word and ‘gambling’ has been refined into ‘gaming’, a form of entertainment for the entire family. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY roll the dice in Goa, fast becoming the casino capital of India

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“With this chip exchange, we enter the final phase of the game. Which means, no more buy-ins. The big blind is 1 million dollars”, announces the casino manager grimly. Armed with just a 5 and 7 of spades, James Bond stares his opponent in the eye, puts all Her Majesty’s 40 million in and cleans the table with a straight flush. It’s high-stakes Texas Hold ‘em Poker and Bond gets the bad guy, the cash AND the girl. It’s a scene we all know very well…

Seduced by the imagery of Casino Royale (or The Great Gambler closer home), many dream of emulating the big screen exploits of cardsharps. With Kathmandu, Asia’s oldest casino industry on the decline, gaming enthusiasts have found a new destination in Goa. It may not be Macau or Montenegro, but the cobbled streets of Panaji and its neon lights shimmering on the Mandovi River, is India’s answer to the French Riviera.

At the jetty, a feeder boat arrives to ferry us to Casino Carnival, which just completed 2 years in operations. We are surprised to see seven couples with as many toddlers in tow. Nimesh, a 30-something points to the glittering lights of the floating casino to distract his wailing child. Certainly not your average punter profile! We ask him if he’s a regular. ‘No no’, he replies. ‘We are a group of friends who play once a year. Last year, we were in Singapore, this year, we chose Goa. We set aside Rs.15,000 each. Win or lose, we just have fun.’ And the kids? ‘The casino has a dedicated crèche and they’ve assured us extra attendants.’

It’s evident that ‘casino’ is no longer a bad word. Today, it has been redefined as another form of entertainment with newer segments thronging a traditionally male bastion – women, children and extended families. Even the term ‘gambling’ has morphed into the politically correct ‘gaming’. People from India’s major metros and smaller towns come aboard to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, honeymoons or reunions. There’s a visible spike in business during Diwali, New Years or during official events and conferences.

As we board Casino Carnival aka MV Boa Sorte (‘Good Luck’ in Portuguese), Shyam Haridas, Director Sales & Marketing, sums up the offshore gaming experience in one word – Luxury. ‘Be it Italian leather upholstery, fine dining or in-house entertainment, we’re here to pamper our customers. You pay Rs.3500 per person, get unlimited drinks and food on the house, plus free one-time play chips. Not bad considering Rs.2000 goes to the government as tax’, he smiles.

In the gaming area, hands are busy shuffling and dealing cards for a round of Blackjack while groups of customers slide their chips at the Roulette table waiting for their luck to spin. A tall man coaxes his partner, “Put another lakh. Ek aur round khelo,” and places all his chips on a random number. The wheel spins and settles on 24. The man loses a lakh, but treats it with the same nonchalance as a missed chance at shooting balloons in a fair. Elsewhere we hear whoops of joy – someone has won. A bunch of four men pack up as their friend heads to the ‘cash cage’ to collect his booty.

Goa’s emergence as the casino capital of India can be attributed to a few factors. Its liberation in 1961, the influx of foreign tourists and its special status as a Union Territory translated into more flexible laws. When Nepal, the Mecca for gamblers through the 70s & 80s spiraled out of control due to political instability, Goa found the perfect opportunity to lure the big spenders. Since most foreign travelers were exposed to the world’s best casinos, locals and domestic tourists took the bait.

It was in the early 90s that Dr William Britto, a genial UK-based dentist from Assonora lobbied hard to set up Chances, one of Goa’s earliest land-based casinos at Cidade de Goa. With Nugget at Ramada and Las Vegas at The Leela operational, the floodgates opened for other 5-star casinos at Bogmalo, Majorda, Marriott and Holiday Inn. The only catch was that all games had to have an element of automation. And the man who was instrumental in setting up Goa’s first slot machines was electronics expert Xavier Vaz.

Currently Director Operations at Casino Carnival, Xavier’s international stints in Las Vegas, Genting and Australia took him to more adventurous zones like the minefields of Cambodia to set up electronic casinos in border towns. ‘Goa, in comparison, was a lot more relaxed’, he says. ‘Earlier it was tough to get people to work in casinos because of social stigma. Now, all that has changed. At Casino Carnival, we employ nearly 400 Goan staff. Many consider it as a launch pad for an overseas career. Besides employment, casinos create a ripple effect on tourism vis-à-vis the taxi trade and hospitality.’ But behind the glitter of big bucks, lies a grim reality. ‘Running a casino is not easy. The rules are prohibitive – we pay Rs.5 crore annually as license fees, Rs.2000 entertainment tax per person plus 10% of our overall gross revenue. We would love to have proper regulation and better understanding of the industry by experts, otherwise it might go the Turkey way where the government decided to ban it overnight’, Xavier rues.

In 1999, further amendment in the Goa, Daman and Diu Public Gambling Act of 1976 allowed offshore vessels to operate live casinos. The Caravela, named after the first Portuguese ship that docked in Goa, became the first offshore casino to float down the Mandovi. The Caravela doesn’t cruise anymore and after management changed hands from the Advani Group to Delta Corp, it was renamed as Casino Prime. Delta Corp also runs Goa’s swankiest gaming ship, the 5-deck Casino Royale, frequented by celebrities and the urban elite. The 10-minute ride from Panjim’s Barcolento Jetty in the 22-seater gulf craft drops us to the ship for a night of merriment. Amit Sawant, GM Marketing, takes us on a guided tour around the plush vessel.

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On one level, Russian dancers do the can-can with ostrich plumes and feathers while an elaborate buffet has been laid out by China Garden. The slick Aqua Bar backstage is for exclusive guests besides a VVIP room reserved for high rollers. The main gaming area is choc-a-bloc with 49 tables and 30 slots, making Casino Royale the largest ‘live-gaming’ casino in the country, the only one with a Money Wheel and Live Crabs table. In one corner, a group of yuppies covertly glanced at their cards, assessing the odds behind their dark glasses. In sharp contrast, old hands watched every move with hawk eyes. Women with sparkling rings on their fingers tapped their cigarettes as they flicked their chips with mock indifference.

Amit explains, ‘Gaming is a form of sport and entertainment for people with disposable income and conspicuous consumption patterns. Poker, Blackjack, Baccarat, Teen Patti (Indian Flush) are all popular games, but Roulette rules because of its high stakes – you can win 35 times of what you bet! As market leaders, we try to expand the market through fortnightly poker tournaments. Our Sunday Brunch, a unique product focusing on entertainment rather than gaming, is a big crowd-puller. Minisha Lamba, Neha Dhupia and Madhavan chose Casino Royale for the promotional launch of their film Teen Patti. Another first, is the World Gaming Festival, an upcoming international event that will put Goa firmly on the world gaming map. The festival was launched by Boxing Superstar and gaming enthusiast Vijender Singh who summed it up perfectly – When skill supersedes luck, it becomes a sport’.

While nothing can beat the offshore live experience, land-based hotel casinos have their own advantages. Patrons like coming here because one can get in, get out anytime without the hassle of ferries. It’s faster, cheaper (Rs.500 entry) and has transferable tickets valid for 24 hours. Since gaming standards in live casinos are high, automated gaming is a good introduction to a novice. Even pros enjoy this format as the game moves faster, with no human intervention. The high rollers often warm up on the slots till about 2-3 am, before hitting the live casinos to play all night. The thrill of beating the casino or winning a jackpot is an adrenaline rush that always tempts people to come back for more.

John D’Costa, Casino Manager at Holiday Inn’s Club Prive (earlier Hacienda de Oro) believes his overseas experience at Star Cruises has prepared him for any scenario. Outlining the hierarchy of the casino industry, he elaborates ‘There are Dealers, Inspectors or Supervisors, Pit Managers who keep an eye on the gaming zone, Shift Managers who oversee everything and finally, there’s the Casino Manager,’ John beams. ‘There are various departments – Table gaming, Slots and Cage are the frontline that interact with gamers while Surveillance, F&B, Housekeeping and Guest Relations handle the back end.’

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The gaming industry broadly classifies gamblers into three types. Entertainment gamblers are first timers who play for fun; they celebrate wildly even if they win Rs.20, providing colour and excitement on the floor. Professional gamblers are regulars who do it for a living; they have smaller targets so when they win, they stop, drink eat and go. But this rare breed accounts for only 1%. Compulsive gamblers are very dangerous to themselves and their families; after early controllable losses, they often progress to the next phase where gambling becomes a daily obsession. So how do casinos control such people? John explains ‘We know the signs, so we counsel him and make him accept that he has a problem. We spread the word and our union, the Casino Association of Goa, bans him for good until he has no option but to fly out of Goa. He may resent us for a few days but will eventually thank us. However, such cases are rare.’

No wonder gaming is riddled with superstition and strange beliefs. John says ‘If God isn’t working, people end up praying to the Devil. People are paranoid that it’s all manipulated, which is why there’s so much surveillance to curb mistakes or cheating by players and dealers. If a player wins, it’s because of him. But if he loses, he blames others – the casino, the dealer or a stranger who walked in. Contrarily, if someone wins a game with his phone kept a certain way, he won’t change its position. Pens, shirts, socks, people, random numbers; everything is lucky.’ Stories of extravagant patrons are legendary. A man who won 10 lakhs distributed 9 lakhs to the staff and was content with 1 lakh for himself. Another decided to tip the dealer generously because she had nice legs.

Tania Arnolda, Director at Update Recreation & Gaming Pvt Ltd, which operates casinos for Cidade de Goa (Goldfinger), Zuri (Dunes), Majorda (Treasures) and The Leela (Las Vegas), says their focus is land-based casinos. Ever since they launched operations in 2005, they’ve opened a casino every two years, established it and then moved on. For Gina, Casino Manager at The Leela, Goa’s nascent casino industry reminds her of the UK scene 30 years ago. ‘Earlier a woman in a casino was considered to be something between a hooker, a tart or trash. Though clients here treat me with respect, they will never let their daughters step inside! That’s ironic. Customer perception is that casinos take away all their money, but the truth is we send home losers and winners every day. The only money we make is just 2.7 % on the money passed. We fuel people’s dreams, you pay only what you want to.’

Tania adds, ‘Strangely, when a person loses Rs.1000, he makes a big noise, exaggerates his losses and blames the casino. But when someone wins, he is so quiet that we never even get to know! Gina simplifies the equation, ‘Let’s face it – people losing money plus alcohol always equals problem.’ Favourite moments? ‘The classic one is when customers ask me for a lucky number. I reply, if I knew I wouldn’t be working here, would I? They insist and I say 17. And the roulette throws up 17. Funnily, 17 has never worked for me!’ The verdict from the specialists is clear. Don’t put your life savings in casinos. Play for fun and with only what you can spare. And know when to stop.

Though casino licenses have been issued in Daman, they are still not operational while Sikkim’s remoteness is a huge deterrent, which leaves the field open for Goa. With four live casinos, a dozen land-based ones and more in the offing, Goa’s gaming industry seems buoyant. When asked if Goa can stake claim to be the Las Vegas of India, Alan D’Mello of Thunderbird Resorts quipped ‘I don’t know about that but I’m sure Las Vegas will soon be known as the ‘Goa of America.’

World Gaming Festival
A jointly owned Intellectual Property of Percept and Delta Corp, the World Gaming Festival really changed the way people experience gaming in India. Held between 23-26 September 2012 at Casino Royale in Goa, the one of a kind tournament tested the skills and strategy of players from around the globe. Five games were played in a knock out format – American Roulette, Texas Hold Em Poker, Bacarrat, Indian Flush and Blackjack and players with a one-time buy competed for a collective prize bounty of Rs.5 crore. The entry fee of Rs.1 lakh entitled a player to a royal experience with free return airfare, five star accommodation and meals, chauffer-driven luxury car, door-to-door transfers, world-class entertainment and entry to the hottest parties in Goa.

Contact Ph 022 40992222 www.worldgamingfestival.com

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the December, 2011 issue of Rail Bandhu, the Indian Railways’ in-train magazine. 

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