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Punters ahoy



The glittering "Casino Goa" ... the only one of its kind in India.

WE should be sleepy after last night's party; but we aren't, even though we returned in the small hours of the morning! New Age mumbo-jumbo would say that we had "resonated to the hyped-up vibes of the other guests." Whatever that means. We prefer to believe that, though many people around us were drawing heavily on their adrenalin reserves, for us it was just a superbly relaxing, entertaining, evening. In fact a pert, brash, TV interviewer couldn't believe it. "You mean you're here to relax only? You don't plan to have even a small flutter on the tables?" she had asked incredulously. We don't blame her. When you leap straight out of college into a glamorous job, and find yourself in a glittering James Bondish setting, you expect everyone to act the part. We probably didn't seem like the sort of people who would pay Rs. 1,200 for the evening and then not spend money in the casino. Dedicated punters buy Rs. 4,200 worth of chips, and everything else is included: food, drinks, entertainment, et al.

We, the interviewer, and about 200 others in "smart casuals" were on the M.V. Caravela anchored just a little off-shore from Goa's Panaji. Our identities had been very discreetly checked by charming young hostesses at the outer gate and then again at the inner gate of the wharf on the Mandovi river. If we had turned up in slippers, scruffy jeans and t-shirts we would, undoubtedly, have been politely turned away. Black-tie and formal wear is de rigueur in Monte Carlo but Goa is a shade more informal than Monaco. In all other ways, however, this 125-foot long, sea-going, ship offers as much of the glitz and glamour of international casinos as our mores, and laws, permit. In it is the newly-launched Casino Goa: the only ship-borne, live, casino in India.

It's impressive. The casino occupies much of a middle deck. Its pillared gold ceiling fills the hall with cheerful illumination: no glare, no shadows. Punters sit on padded stools around the gaming tables, watched by ceiling-hung security cameras, dealers and croupiers dextrously handle cards, chips and the spin of the clicking roulette wheel. Supervisors keep a careful eye on them, overseen by the Pit Boss striding around ceaselessly. And they're all under the calm gaze of the burly, Australian, Casino Manager, Kevin Willcocks. He has been in the gaming profession for 17 years, all over the world. "Gamblers are a very superstitious lot," he said, "when they're on a roll they don't want anything to change. They'll use the same hand to place their bets, the same gestures, the same posture. Nothing must disturb them." Not even photographers: particularly not photographers. Casino patrons, the world over, do not want to be photographed: close-up " gamblers" are generally posed by the staff or models. When true punters are hunched over American Roulette, Carribean Stud Poker, Rummy, Black Jack or Baccarat, the only people who can intrude are the waitresses with an unending supply of snacks and drinks. Serious gamblers, however, like a well-heeled group from Gujarat, tended to drink in moderation: they don't want to fog their minds with spirits!

The ship vibrated slightly under us as it got under way down the Mandovi river.

We strolled away from the casino, the clicks and the whirrs and the soft voices of the dealers fading behind us. Security guards watched every door, every stairway, alertly, unobtrusively. When lakhs change hands over the tables every night, security has to be tight. We climbed to the open upper deck. Candles flickered on the tables under the stars, constellations of lights from the buildings of Panaji winked back at us and were reflected in the flowing waters of the Mandovi. A ferry laden with cheering tourists chugged past below; we waved back and wondered if they thought that we, too, were part of the Rich and Reckless, Page Three set.

Shaun, the freelance bartender, juggled bottles and lethal concoctions, balloons bobbed, the live band played between metallic golden palms over a sunken, smoke puffing, dance floor where couples seemed to be floating on clouds. Waiters whisked finger-food around the tables. There is something special about an evening party abroad a moving ship. There's a sense of belonging, of intimacy with the other passengers as if we were all members of an exclusive club, insulated from the outside world, We spoke to two senior journalists we had known for many years, met a gaggle of call-centre sirens with Yankee twangs, and a heavily-built has-been from Bollywood who smiled benignly at everyone as if eternally posing for a publicity still. We wondered why he never took off his black felt hat all through the night. Then he tilted his headgear to wipe his broad forehead and we realised that he had a shiny pate under his fedora. We left the Bald and the Beautiful and explored the rest of the ship.

There were two suites and six rooms on board, presumably for those who want to recover from the shock of losing, or winning, many lakhs; or for those who prefer to freshen up before or after a flight. Some dedicated punters, we were told, wing in just to play the tables and then fly back. Since children below 18 are not allowed into the casino after 7.30 in the evening, there are two children's rooms where they are looked after and entertained. We left the kids and, at long last, sat in the Caravela's multi cuisine restaurant. The buffet, including the vegetarian fare, was excellent; the décor elegant and understated; the service soft-footed and attentive; the conversation subdued.

Some people, burdened by the unchanging routine of their lives, need the stimulus of the casino. Others find an evening on the Caravela as relaxing as a pine-scented breeze on a high mountain. For both, it really is a great way to unwind. And not feel sleepy the next morning!

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