Casino nights in Goa
Forget Nepal or Macau, the country’s high rollers are heading to India’s only off-shore casinos – glamorous, glittering floating vessels on the river Mandovi in Goa, where the sun never sets and the stakes are sky-high.
You cannot win against the House. The only winner in a casino is the person who scores a hit and stops playing. Still, only one of 100 customers does that. Most of them get sucked into playing longer. If they win, they want to win more. If they don’t, they want to recoup losses. Isi chakravyuh mein phans jaate hain,” says Narinder Punj, managing director of the Deltin Group of Hotels and Casinos, Goa.
The colour of money: The clientele at the Deltin Royale’s poker rooms (above) is distinctly upmarket
Punj, 60, a veteran of the gaming industry, invokes the Mahabharat to describe the traits of compulsive gamblers that push them into the quicksand of losing. But away from the warm sands of Goa’s beaches, on board the uber-cool Deltin Royale, India’s largest offshore casino, none of the more than 500 punters nursing their drinks on leather couches on a frenzied Saturday night appear as perturbed as Yudhishtir about to wager his wife away.
The Deltin Royale is the largest of the four off-shore casinos housed in vessels docked at Panjim’s River Mandovi, where the lights are on 24x7 and the atmosphere more carnival-like than the Mahabharat gambling hall.
A 2010 study by management consultancy KPMG, the last such estimate, said Indians spend around $60 million on gambling every year. But Sikkim and Goa are the only two states where gambling is legal in the country (see box). Within Goa, the action is the hottest at the off-shore casinos that feature live gambling with human croupiers (dealers), as opposed to electronic gambling and slot machines at the on-shore variants, which find fewer takers.
At the Deltin Royale, honeymooners and high rollers, businessmen and techies alike live their Casino Royale moments playing poker a la 007, trying their hand at Blackjack, putting mountains of chips on roulette or making a racket playing Teen Patti.
A view of the Pride 1 casino at the Mandovi river
At the first level, where the stakes are the lowest, the players are at their most boisterous. There are LV-toting socialites, gabardine-wearing traders and even a few toddlers clad in jumpsuits, who are diligently deposited by parents into a kids’ room chaperoned by staff that ensures the parents can wager their bets in peace. As you go higher, into the stratified realm of poker rooms and whiskey lounges, the stakes become higher and the players more distinguished and well-heeled.
The James Bond treatment begins on the riverfront, where gamblers pay a cover charge and are taken to the vessel by speedboat. Dinesh Patel, 38, a jewellery dealer from Surat, eyes my backpack and remarks: "Are you taking a bagful of money to gamble the night away?" "No, it is empty," I reply. "I am hoping that some beginner’s luck comes my way and then, who knows?"
Indian formats such as Teen Patti and Paplu are also popular in Goa, but on the back of the revolution in online gaming, a younger generation of players has taken a fancy to international formats such as blackjack, baccarat, roulette and poker.
On Sunday night, the poker tables at the Deltin Royale, the cavernous 40,000 sq feet vessel spread over four levels, are buzzing with players trying to outwit each other and yet maintaining a façade of detachment so as not to give away their cards. Although most of them appear edgy and reluctant to talk while a game is on, one sidles up to an affable face to get a grip on why gambling in Goa is such a big deal.
The cheerful smile on the face of Jason Lau, 30, a meat distributor from Montreal, indicates he’s on a bit of a roll. "I am doing okay. I’ve won Rs 30,000 in the last three days," he tells me. "But it isn’t any serious shit: the most I’ve won back home was Canadian dollars 17,000 (around Rs 9,42,872) in one night," adds Lau.
A regular at poker rooms in London, Macau and Vegas, the world’s most evolved gambling venues, Lau returns to Goa twice a year to combine a tropical vacation with good old poker. His favourite format is Texas Hold ’Em poker, made popular by the 2006 film Casino Royale.
Just like 007
Sixteen years after the state government amended the Public Gambling Act, allowing offshore casinos into Goa in 1998, the profile of the players has diversified. The audience now includes high net-worth individuals as well as the walk-in tourist, apart from vacationers shaken and stirred by the idea of living their Bond fantasy.
Lalit Khurana, 30, a mid-level manager based in Gurgaon, who’s been hypnotised with the high-octane world of gambling since he watched Casino Royale, is one of these. "The scene from the film, where Daniel Craig wins a hand worth 125 million dollars, opened the world of high-stakes poker for my friends and me," says Khurana, as he takes a break from the five-card poker table at Deltin Royale. Khurana says he can’t match the bets that international poker players wager, but his wife Pooja and he can still experience the ephemeral high of winning.
Unlike Khurana, at Goa’s off-shore casinos, there’s no dearth of combative poker players who don’t mind making a fortune on one incredible night of gaming, or losing it.
Kevin Neves, 26, an investment banker based in London, for instance, comes to play in his home state Goa twice a year. "The weather in Goa is so much better. Since I am on vacation, might as well make some money. And the losses, well, they come with the territory. So, one dreadful evening, I lost as much as Rs 3.5 lakh, but I made up for it by raking in Rs 11 lakh the following night," he says.
“Doesn’t it remind you of a Big Bazaar sale?” asks Keval Tanwani, 28, a product manager from Dubai who comes to Goa every year to gamble a few nights away with his friends. “I’ve also played at Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands and casinos in Macau. Compared to them, casinos in Goa aren’t better in aesthetics or service. But the currency has greater value here. So I can play for longer in Goa,” says Tanwani.
Once poker fatigue sets in, Tanwani and friends head to the entertainment level, where a troupe of Nepalese dancers is burning the floor gyrating to Fevicol Se and drawing seetis from the diners. “The drinks and the food are on the house, along with one-time playing coupons. So one doesn’t mind the cover charge,” says Manjit Singh, a stocky businessman based in Noida.
Dancers from Nepal, once a popular casino getaway, swing to Bollywood numbers
The expectations of Indian tourists are rising owing to the exposure they get at casinos abroad, says Shrinivas Nayak, director of Goa Coastal Resorts and Recreation, which owns Pride I.
"Indian tourists love to gamble. With Kathmandu, the oldest casino destination in the subcontinent seeing a decline, Goa has potential to catch the throng of gamblers that heads to Sri Lanka, Macau, Singapore, Malaysia, the UK and South Africa," says Nayak. Driven by the love for gambling, the number of Indian tourists to Macau increased from 29,000 to almost 1,60,000 in 2012. It is these tourists that they are targeting.
"Goa’s casinos are fast becoming hubs of entertainment where a family, a couple or a single person will find more than just gambling. On the lines of a Macau, Las Vegas or Singapore, they expect to eat well, watch a show, shop or even stay over at an integrated hotel," adds Jurate Bitinaite, vice president, sales and marketing, Deltin Group Hotels and Casinos.
Still, says Khushru Randelia, 36, business developer with the Deltin Group, Goa has a long way to go before it attracts professionals who play for really high stakes. "Very few professional Blackjack players come here because we don’t offer the crazy table limits that casinos in Vegas or Macau can offer. In casinos on cruise ships, they can go as high as $80,000. Goa’s casinos emphasise on entertainment gaming rather than hard-core gambling," says Randelia.
But that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of incredible casino stories. "There was this techie from Hyderabad who played with Rs 5,000 and went back making Rs 10 lakh in a matter of five hours. Roulette pays you 35 times of your stake for single-digit bets," says Randelia.
On the flip side, a series of lows can also leave you broke. "When a customer enters a bad phase, going with responsible gaming rules, we enter the picture and tell him to take it easy. Say if he loses one lakh, we say: ‘You know what, there’s always tomorrow. We’ll give you a complimentary entry. Have a drink and relax during the timeout.’ We tell them to take it easy, but they don’t like it. They are trying to win their money back you see," adds Randelia.
The darker side
Gambling is a political hot potato in Goa. Recently, the clamour to move the casinos out of the Mandovi again grew with the state’s environmentalists. A spectrum of political leaders – including current chief minister Manohar Parrikar – opposed casinos when they were in the Opposition. But the tone changes once they assume power, allege critics.
Senior journalist Frederick Noronha says at the ground level, there is widespread disapproval for casinos in the state. "Despite appearances to the contrary, Goa is a conservative society. The gambling is however justified and continued using a whole lot of dubious reasoning."
Dr William Britto, MD of Britto Amusements, which set up the Chances Casino, one of the oldest in Goa, in 1994, predictably, perceives it in a different light. "A casino gives you a certain amount of free spirit. You work like a dog at work and once you come to a casino, they look after you so well. If you know your limits, why should you not have a little flutter at a casino?" asks Britto, sitting at the resort office in Dona Paula.
It isn’t that Goans weren’t accustomed to having casinos, reasons Britto. "In Portuguese times, there was a live casino in the Vasco area. Several members of my family, when they came down occasionally from Bombay and Calcutta, used to filter down to Vasco. But when India took over in 1961, all of that disappeared."
As in the Ocean’s Eleven series of movies, there are always people who are trying to beat the House, says Punj. But it cuts both ways. "The casino, too, is devising ways to beat the customer. The biggest money spinner, literally, at a casino, is the roulette wheel. If you add up all the numbers on the wheels from 1 to 36, the total comes to 666, which is the number of the devil. To date nobody has been able to devise a system to beat roulette," points out Punj.
Unlike Gordon Gekko’s celebrated sermon, greed may not be good at Goa’s casinos. "In casino situations, a high will inevitably be followed by a low. The trick is to quit when you are well ahead," adds Punj.
Realising the import of the advice, I take stock and realise I am Rs 1,000 over. The Rs 3,000 that I lost in Blackjack has been compensated at the roulette table. It’s time to cash out the chips. I may lose again at another casino tomorrow. But for today, I feel like George Clooney in the final scene of a heist movie with a diamond in his pocket and a song on his lips.
Photos by Sanjeev Verma
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From HT Brunch, November 2
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