Paul Edwards follows the trail of beautiful people - and mere mortals - to the world's most glamorous casinos.
Sometimes it seems Lady Luck has lost a few of her beauty spots. These days casinos are a dime a dozen, particularly in Victoria, where many of our pubs resound to the banal music of poker machines and the blare of racing telecasts.
A true casino conjures up visions of European royals and aristocrats - many displaced - beautiful blondes, playboys, despairing dowagers down to their last dollar and an ensemble of raffish travellers spending their days in cheap hotels and their nights in glamorous gambling palaces.
That's how Somerset Maugham and F. Scott Fitzgerald saw the world of high rollers and low losers, and it's a world that still exists if you know where to look.
The beautiful people are still there - although outnumbered by mere mortals - and while the despairing dowagers might look more like desperate housewives, nowhere else on earth will you see triumph and tragedy wrapped up in such a glitzy bundle.
Here is the rundown of the royal list when it comes to roulette, baccarat, blackjack and poker - the world's top 10 glamorous casinos:
MONTE CARLO CASINO
There may be bigger, better, more luxurious casinos, but the grande dame of Monaco still clutches her blueblood eminence with a grip nurtured by old money and new technology.
The last time I was here, the Cary Grant-lookalikes had morphed into more laid-back Brian Ferry impersonators and the Grace Kellys seemed to have turned into Paris Hiltons, but discounting the odd loudmouth who would be better positioned in his/her native land, the in-crowd would still be recognised by Graham Greene.
The casino has a stunning position - below the palace of the ruling Grimaldi family and above the harbour that shelters the floating mansions of the rich and famous. Some of Europe's most expensive and desirable real estate clings to the cliffs and the casino's interior reflects the vast wealth of this most exclusive of principalities.
The gambling palace was built in 1863 and was designed to attract the world's richest people. It still does its job, luring the kind of people who regularly dine at the nearby Louis XV, which has a wine cellar with more than 300,000 bottles, none of which costs less than $100 and many of which are more than $1000.
The casino has the inevitable poker machines in the American Room but the European Room is just for roulette, baccarat, chemin de fer and other traditional games. Then there are the private rooms for the very private people who don't want anyone to see them adding to or subtracting from their seriously vast wealth.
CLERMONT CLUB, LONDON
Addresses don't come any better than 44 Berkeley Square, Mayfair - but there's no Monopoly money changing hands here. London's conservative gambling laws decree that if you want to visit any of the city's casinos, you have to apply for membership at least a day ahead of your proposed big plunge.
I'm not sure if that rule applied to HRH Princess Margaret or 007 Roger Moore, who used to add a bit of colour to the place in the early days. The Clermont was once a Playboy Club, but these days it's the punters rather than the staff who lose their shirts. Baccarat, blackjack and the English version of roulette are played here.
The club is in a lovely old mansion that was opened as a casino by eccentric entrepreneur John Aspinall. As a sideline to gambling, Aspinall kept a private zoo for which he found it increasingly hard to get staff - perhaps because five of his keepers were killed by elephants and tigers.
This is an understated place compared with garish facilities in Las Vegas and elsewhere, and its membership includes many British bluebloods. It is understood that missing murder suspect Lord Lucan is way behind with his membership payments.
ST JAMES'S CLUB CASINO, ANTIGUA
People who know a lot about casinos say this is as good as they come. The smallish facility - just 50 gaming machines and eight tables - attracts the kind of enthusiasts who want to keep their chips high and profiles low. Most are high-fliers from the US, with Chicago and New York providing many of the players.
The American version of roulette is the star attraction here, together with blackjack and craps.
Visitors are happy if they break even - the deluxe hotel has been judged for four consecutive years as the best in the Caribbean and has a beautiful setting on a sliver of sand fringing Mamora Bay.
The gaming rooms are styled on those at Monte Carlo - all rich timbers, murals, ankle-deep carpet and a wide range of opportunities for the endless battle with Lady Luck.
The crowd here is international, with a heavy sprinkling of New Yorkers, and if your luck is in you may catch a glimpse of Antigua's most famous son, Sir Vivian Richards.
BADEN-BADEN CASINO, GERMANY
Marlene Dietrich, who knew a bit about such things, declared this was the most beautiful casino in the world. Certainly it has a distinctive style, stemming from its history spanning almost three centuries and the workmanship of Europe's greatest designers.
Baden-Baden is in the Black Forest of south-west Germany and was well known to the Romans for its mineral springs. As is common with European spa cities, the wealthy visitors wanted something to break up the long hours of bathing and drinking medicinal waters. The first mention of gambling is in advertising leaflets dated 1748. Today's casino was founded in 1824, when the Kurhaus was built.
New gaming rooms were created by architects, designers and artists from Paris, which had lost its own leading casino. Extreme opulence was built into the Winter Garden, the Red Room, the Florentine Room and the Salon Pompadour and, over the years, new rooms have been opened: the Baccarat Terrace, the American Salon and the Austrian Room.
From 1872, there was a 60-year break during which German casinos were closed - Hitler's regime reopened them.
MANDARIN ORIENTAL, MACAU
Up there with the best of them, this luxurious casino continues to flourish despite political and techno-logical changes. It has a bewildering assortment of gaming machines and sumptuous rooms housing roulette, boule, blackjack and baccarat. Macau has perhaps the widest range of casino games in the world, including fan-tan and hungry tigers - the local version of one-armed bandit.
The casino is part of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, which is part of the glitzy Chinese enclave along the Pearl River delta. This strip is roaring ahead with competitors for the Oriental, including seven casino resorts due to open on the Cotai Strip. At last count there were 14 casinos here, attracting high rollers from Japan, China, Taiwan and other rich and developing nations.
The former Portuguese colony of Macau is now, like Hong Kong, part of China, but in many aspects it's more like Las Vegas. The Oriental may lose its position as the gambling pearl of the East when the US-funded Venetian casino resort opens, at a cost of $3 billion and with about 3000 guest rooms.
It seems there will be no shortage of punters - the mainland has well over a billion Chinese who, historically, have not been averse to chancing their luck.
CASINO METROPOL, MOSCOW
The doors never close at this big casino resort, where occupants of the 450 guest rooms are given special privileges over local punters in the fight for a place at the tables. The Metropol has 11 table games, including five-card stud, blackjack, American roulette, punto banco and poker.
There are nearly 50 licensed casinos in Moscow, including the well-named Casino Desperado, but aficionados say the Metropol still has the edge for class and service. How long this will last may depend on the whims of the Russian bureaucracy, which claims casinos are run by criminals and has started to rip out the slot machines that have sprung up in almost every public place.
Moscow's deputy mayor has stated there should be no gambling establishments at all, but the Metropol has friends in high places and brings in eagerly accepted foreign currency. Odds are it will stay.
SUN CITY, SOUTH AFRICA
Africa's premier resort, Sun City, has four major hotels: the Cabanas, Sun City Hotel, Cascades and the Palace of the Lost City. Their existence came about when Bophuthatswana was declared an independent state by the former apartheid regime and could provide entertainment such as gambling and topless revue shows, which were banned in the rest of South Africa.
Sun City is a 90-minute drive from Johannesburg and is that city's major weekend destination. Entertainers including Queen and Elton John have worked the Sun City Super Bowl, Africa's largest entertainment venue.
The Sun City Hotel was the first of the super resorts and is famous for the huge jackpots on its slot machines, with one lucky punter picking up $1.2 million.
Trying to find your machine won't be easy - there are almost 900 of them. There's also punto banco, American roulette, craps and blackjack, with reserved rooms for sky's-the-limit gamblers.
BELLAGIO, LAS VEGAS
In the modern home of garish gambling dens, the Bellagio is perhaps the best of the best. The casino is part of the amazing Bellagio resort, with its 4000 rooms and suites, 30 restaurants, bars and cafes, shops including Tiffany, Gucci, Dior and Chanel, an art gallery with originals by Picasso, Degas and Monet, and a nightly performance by Cirque du Soleil.
Bellagio is owned by MGM, one of the major players in this sizzling city, and has a Players Club offering deals on seven resorts and casinos, 100 restaurants, 10 shows, seven-day spas and salons and three golf courses. There are almost unlimited events and free promotions.
There's an enormous range of gambling machines and a spread of table games including blackjack, Caribbean stud poker, craps, keno, Let It Ride, poker, Pai Gow poker, roulette, slots, big six, baccarat and megabucks. There's also a global service offering bets on sporting events - see if you can get set on the Yarra Glen trots.
You can enjoy much of this opulence for nothing - many of the amazing public rooms are open to all comers - and if you're a guest the resort expects to take your money at the gaming tables rather than the dining version. In other words, it's surprisingly affordable.
BORGATA CASINO, ATLANTIC CITY
Atlantic City is where the players from New York and other US eastern seaboard cities go to get their gambling fix. Serious wealth mingles with the hoi polloi and although the sky is the limit to what you can spend, the Borgata offers a range of accommodation packages starting around $100 for bed and buffet breakfast.
There are 14 table games and the usual range of jangling machines. You can have a flutter on races and other sports events around the world - in fact almost everything except two-up. The Borgata is big on entertainment and coming up soon are acts including Rod Stewart and Pearl Jam.
ATLANTIS RESORT, BAHAMAS
The largest casino in the Caribbean, Atlantis has 1000 slot machines, all linked to a system that offers rewards such as accommodation discounts each time you play. The salons are over the top in design - all gold plate and blown glass - and offer both French and American roulette.
There are 18 restaurants, buffets and cafes here and a range of non-gambling activities including water sports, golf, marine eco-exhibits, theatre and escorted island tours. But gambling aside, the marine attractions are what bring the punters here - Atlantis claims the largest artificial marine habitat in the world, with 11 lagoons and an estimated 200,000 sea animals.
There's a big choice of accommodation and you'll hear stories of punters who've started off in a $500 standard room, had luck on the tables, moved into a $4000 suite, lost the lot and moved back to their original accommodation.
But then, life's a gamble, isn't it? (Credit: Fairfax)
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