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Sun, sea, sand and straight flushes

The first thing that strikes you about Goa’s casino heartland is that it’s not exactly on land. The narrow roads enveloped by rich green that snake through Panjim (Panaji) lead us to the river Mandovi, where a majority of the casino action happens, in yachts that go nowhere. Here, one whole entertainment district comes to life at dusk, when the floating casinos on the river light up their multi-coloured LED bows and sterns to attract the moneyed moths to the flame. And come they do, in all shapes and sizes. Corporate yuppies from the big cities who fly in for their weekend fix. Families with kids in tow who have strayed away from the more clichéd spots to see what all the fuss is about. Package tour parties drawn in by wily agents who have added a round of gambling to their beach agendas. Sharp businessmen with money on their mind. Stockbrokers looking for a bigger thrill than the markets. Foreigners looking to cash in on their powerful currencies. Semi-professional players who have made Goa their home. And the odd local resident, too.

Once on board, shipped in on small dingys to the mother ship by the dozen, it’s easy to forget that you are in the land of sun, sea, sand and susegad. The dress code forbids beach wear such as shorts, T-shirts and slippers, and it’s not uncommon to see people wrapped up in shawls and jackets to escape the air conditioned chill. But no one seems to be really missing the beach in here, and the floors are nearly always buzzing with action. The crowds swarm around the popular table games that require the least skill, such as Roulette, Indian Flush, Baccarat, Teen Patti, Andhar Bahar, Lucky Seven and the Wheel of Fortune. The spinning wheels and rolling dice create a hypnotic rattle that temporarily silences the hordes around each table. They otherwise generally let out whoops of joy, lament about the position of their stars and curse the dealer as the spin settles. The slot machines, the only game on board that depends entirely on it being your lucky day, are often occupied by an assortment of kids, ladies, first-timers, geriatrics, the odd casino novice and those looking for a break from the taxing tables.

It’s also strangely amusing to see the punters trying their luck at the Wheel of Fortune, wearing faces that are as serious as a heart attack, watching images of rubber ducks, anchors and ships spinning past. It’s an enjoyable, theme-park side to the casino that gives everyone a chance to feel like big-time punters, and have a different kind of night out. It’s no secret that the house always wins at the table games, with the sheer number of players around, but that doesn’t deter the swarm from continuing to chase the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Never mind that it’s pretty hard to see a rainbow in the dark.

There’s a curious take on the old ‘moving up in life’ cliché at play on these yachts. The ambience, the décor, the food, the drinks, the crowd and the stakes at the table are enhanced as you go up, floor by floor. The entry-level guests, who have paid around Rs.1,500 a head to get in, crowd around the ground and first floors. The liquor is on the house provided you are part of a table. It is Indian-made foreign liquor at best, and only served up once the waiter casts a discerning eye at the number of chips stacked up in front of you. If you are hanging around a table with nothing, or just the odd chips, you might as well expect the club sandwich you ordered for dinner to turn up for breakfast, if you are lucky.

The top floors, meanwhile, carry no hint of the frenzy down below. Some of the private gaming rooms are by invitation only, where the big sharks swim. Butlers,

leather recliners, king lobsters, master chefs and champagne are all just an arm’s reach away, whenever they decide to lay down their cards. Most of them are seasoned gamblers, having tasted and wasted blood in the more established casino centrals such as Las Vegas and Macau, and no expense is spared to try and match up.

The more professional action, across the floors, happens at the central tables, where the ‘skill’ games hold fort. Blackjack is popular, with scores of players trying their luck and skill at cracking the 21 code. Baccarat, a high-stakes game, also has a lot of takers.

But the crème de la crème of the casino games, of late at least, is poker. A game steeped in history and lore, it is now an international phenomenon, and a skill sport in its own right. The world series of poker is a popular annual attraction now, and the sport has its fair share of legends, superstars and household names that have captured the imagination of those wanting to live on the edge and move away from the mundane. Goa is now poker central in India, with semi-professionals pouring in from across the country across the year. Many have moved base to Goa, playing poker full time and sometimes earning more than what they would have if they did what their parents told them to. As one philosophical punter told me, “We gamble in all walks of life anyway. With love, with marriage, with choosing jobs. Even riding in our traffic is a gamble. So why not poker?”

But it is a razor’s edge they walk, and like in any other walk of life, one doesn’t tend to hear the story of the losers too often. A marked difference at the poker tables is the number of foreigners in the game, and a distinct lack of alcohol around. It’s a game that doesn’t mix well with spirits.

That said, the free alcohol on offer combined with a nasty losing streak can have a strange effect on some, and it’s not uncommon to hear sad and hilarious stories. There have been instances of people trying to make a quick exit, forgetting that they are far from land, and stories of epic meltdowns that needed some rather muscular interventions. But there are bouncers and ‘watchers’ aplenty, and like all casinos, there’s a great ‘eye in the sky’ filming you at all times.

On the whole, it’s largely a carnival atmosphere, though most of the touristy punters take a hit. They console themselves a bit by slithering away to the dining section, which has a decent buffet spread on offer, and bored Russian dancers breaking into a Bollywood song-and-dance sequence every now and then. There’s always a crowd at the exit, with people queuing up a little lighter on the pocket, but perhaps none the wiser. They wait until the boats that ferry them back to the mainland arrive, filled with fresh meat that has been promptly delivered for slaughter. And it’s eat, sleep and repeat, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Jerry Lewis, the legendary comedian, once said that gambling is a part of the human condition. For a funny guy, he was dead serious on this count. People just can’t seem to get enough of trying their hand at making money without working hard enough for it, and the floating casinos of Goa are laughing all the way to the shore.

swaroopdev09@gmail.com


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Printable version | Jun 23, 2021 1:15:11 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/sun-sea-sand-and-straight-flushes/article26967764.ece

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