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Chips off the OLD BLOC

We’re all familiar with the Vegas dream of getting rich through the spin of a wheel, but when that dream is taken away from the Strip’s opulent surroundings and relocated in some of Eastern Europe’s poorest areas, it becomes an entirely different picture. Duncan Wilkie reports

As a poker and gambling writer, I’ve been blessed with travelling to some of the most luxurious casino locations on the planet. Be it the fountains outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas or the ornate splendour of the Casino de Monte Carlo, I’ve had the pleasure of participating in card and table games in some truly spectacular venues.

However, in the world of gambling – perhaps more so than any other area of the leisure industry – there can be a darker side too. For all the commonly accepted portrayals of the decadent casino high life, the more widespread reality of gambling around the globe can often paint something of a different picture.

You see, for every lavish casino you visit for a WPT, EPT or WSOPE event, there are countless others that don’t offer the same red carpet service to their patrons. What we see back here in our live blogs, video updates and magazine reports is essentially a tourism brochure for the gambling industry showing only the highlights.

Having travelled Eastern Europe extensively to cover various tour events, I’ve been able to see behind the curtain and explore the side of casino gambling that doesn’t get reported in the industry’s flagship publications, and it is one that is devoid of all of the glitz and glamour, celebrity endorsements and life-changing amounts of money.

The bleaker picture that I have encountered outside of big-name casinos in cities like Tallinn, Riga, Kiev and Prague is one of dingy ‘herna bar’ (Czech for ‘gambling house’) style casinos offering “non-stop slots” and cheap drinks around the clock – and though their names differ from country to country, you can spot them a mile off.

In their various city-specific guises, herna bars are usually found in clusters away from the main tourist drags and forego the luxury of table games and live dealers in favour of rows and rows of slot machines and video poker consoles. They are open almost 24/7 and nearly always feature neon signs boasting of big money jackpots.

Generally, they are considered a blight on their respective cities by the public as a whole and have a reputation for being especially rough late at night. They are known to attract unfortunate cross-sections of society including alcoholics and problem gamblers and have also been accused of encouraging prostitution and drug crime.

In some countries, herna bars are even owned by criminal mafia-type organisations, meaning that they are both unlicensed and unregulated by any kind of gambling board, yet despite their seedy appearance, depressing ambience and generally unsafe reputation they remain a popular fixture across Eastern Europe.

Indeed, herna bars and their equivalent elsewhere are a cornerstone of the gaming industry in Eastern Europe and generate millions in revenue each and every year. For all the bad press that they get and all the anecdotal evidence that you hear, the fact is that people are going to these venues with an almost unswerving regularity.

The question, therefore, is why? Why, if they know these gambling houses are considered a breeding ground for sin and vice, do the people keep going to them and pushing their hard-earned wages down a slot for very little return? For me, the answer lies with a false sense of aspiration created by filtered images of Las Vegas.

Now, we’re all familiar with the concept of the American Dream – a land of promise and opportunity in which regardless of race, creed or socio-economic background a person can prosper just through hard work and opportunism – and it is no coincidence that Hunter S Thompson’s search for this ideal took him to Las Vegas.

There, in his semi-fictitious work Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the late Dr Thompson discovered that the ideology behind Sin City was the very same that underpinned the American Dream – the idea that anyone in the right place at the right time could, with only the spin of a wheel, make a brand new life for themselves.

Of course, this is hardly ever the case in Vegas or anywhere else for that matter; but the point is there are occasionally winners and their success stories are always the ones that stick in the mind. These stories are in turn filtered throughout the world by media imagery and word of mouth and they go on to provide further fuel for the myth.

For this reason – as well as the decadent ‘high-roller’ lifestyle that many people believe goes hand-in-hand with gambling – millions of people across America flock to Vegas every year to try and win big. However, for people further afield, travelling so far is not always an option and they must instead make do with a local alternative.

In the cities of Eastern Europe, this alternative manifests itself as the aforementioned herna bars. Here, the more impressionable members of society believe that the American Dream is something that can be attained simply by feeding coins into machines in dingy slot parlours and waiting for that elusive win.

And while it may seem strange that the American Dream would be something that people on the other side of the Atlantic would actively strive to attain for themselves, one must remember that while the Baltic States were under Soviet occupation, US pop culture was one of the main forms of escapism for two generations of European.

During that period in history, many areas of Eastern Europe under Soviet occupation were crippled by poverty, with families unable to start up their own enterprise for fear of being branded ‘speculators’. As such, many people who opposed Soviet rule had little choice but to look elsewhere to make money and illegal gambling was rife.

When you consider this factor alongside the American influence that was being pumped into the country via pirate radio and – latterly – satellite television, is it really any surprise that the ideology behind the American Dream is something that was, and still is, something that is close to the hearts of many Europeans to this day?

Simply put, during that bleak period in European history, those who were opposed to the Soviet rule wanted to escape and make a better life for themselves – a life like the one that they’d been lead to believe everyone on the other side of the Atlantic already enjoyed – and the easiest way to attain this was through gambling.

While very few people had the money to leave their homes and relocate elsewhere at that time, part of the appeal of gambling in that part of the world was the possibility of getting lucky and the hope and possibility that a big win could bring with it. In other words, what people were essentially aiming to do was buy back their own freedom.

Of course, this socio-economic background helped to create some notable figures in the world of gambling and poker – Lithuanian-born entrepreneur Tony G is a particularly useful case study. Growing up in Kaunas under Soviet rule, the poker player and sports bettor discovered that gambling could be a way to beat the system.

From a young age, G – real name Antanas Guoga – began betting with his friends and gambling at the local bus station as an act of rebellion against the life that the Soviet government had imposed upon him, and the values that he learnt during those formative years would shape the successful businessman and world-renowned poker player that he is today.

But while there are success stories like Tony G’s, there were many more people who chased the dream of catching a lucky winner and weren’t rewarded in kind – and it is the hangover from this period in history that still engulfs many people in Eastern European countries as they simply repeat the habits of generations gone by.

The times may have changed, but the underlying sentiment behind gambling remains. For many people who experienced what life in Soviet-occupied countries was like, gambling – and the sense of hope and aspiration that came with it – was the only escape they had from the brutal realities of poverty and occupation.

Although the break-up of the Soviet Union has long-since restored sovereignty to the countries worst afflicted by gambling problems, the fact is that this is a mentality and a way of life that has been passed down from more troubled times and still lingers strong today – and it is something governments in Eastern Europe need to address.

It is only through understanding the reasons why people are driven to gamble outside their means that you are able to cure them of their affliction, and if a more realistic picture – depicting failure as well as success – was portrayed in their media, perhaps the herna bar promise of “non-stop slots” wouldn’t prove such a draw.

So, the next time you see one of poker’s premier tours setting up camp in a blue-chip European casino, be aware that there’s another side to the glitz and glamour – and it is one will not go away in Eastern Europe unless the same attention is also focused on warning people of the dangers of aspiring to the high-roller lifestyle.
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