Closeup/Lifestyles

The Big Casino

In Alberta, all bets are on—legally

Suzanne Zwarun October 3 1977
Closeup/Lifestyles

The Big Casino

In Alberta, all bets are on—legally

Suzanne Zwarun October 3 1977

The Big Casino

Closeup/Lifestyles

In Alberta, all bets are on—legally

Suzanne Zwarun

It’s only ten-thirty but on a bland Thursday night in Calgary they bed down the sidewalks at sundown. At the downtown Calgary convention centre, the Four Seasons dining room is emptying fast, The Showbar is well into its final act, the rented cops have paused in their rounds to chat up the night sweepers. You’d never guess there was anything at all left to happen unless you made your way downstairs. Down in the bowels of the complex, there’s a trail of little red arrows to follow but nobody needs them. You can hear the action. An incessant plastic twittering, the chiming of plastic chip against plastic chip, drifts up the tunnel, cuts through the city night the way a cricket’s chirp pierces the country air. The refrain, played by hundreds of cardplayers nervously fingering thousands of gambling chips, starts at noon most days in Calgary and Edmonton and ends at 2 a.m. long after the bars are closed and theatres have doused their lights. It’s a Damon Runyon dream, the largest floating blackjack game in Canada and it’s entirely legal.

It’s also a grim business. If gambling is the sin some think, Alberta likes to keep the sinner serious, the setting stark. The cashier’s cage, knocked together out of unpainted plywood, sets a mood that makes an early Ontario beer parlor seem, by comparison, luxuriously cozy. There are acres of grey tile, washed by enough neon to light a football field. No music, just the monotonous flutter of the crown and anchor wheel, the chattering of chips. No booze, just a table doling out hot dogs, soft drinks, coffee. No glittering clothes, no crystal chandeliers, no off-duty show girls.

No class at all. But the floating blackjack game only needs people and people it has. Seven impassive men and women are welded to every semicircular table, latecomers piled up two and three deep behind them, silently awaiting their turn at a chrome stool.

Las Vegas it’s not. But if casinos, Canadian-style, have all the charm of the bank that buffaloed Stephen Leacock, the money is real enough and there’s enough going by to launch a mini-bank. Twenty, 50, 100 dollar bills flutter across the felt tables, stacks of chips are swept back. At one table, a tiny, dark-haired woman pushes blue $25 chips, the table maximum. A slight, grey-suited man, playing two hands, works his way through three 20s, a 50 and 100 in an hour. Without a hint of a flinch,

without having spoken a word, he ambles away and a red-faced man, triple chins jiggling like jelly on a train, heaves himself onto the stool. He methodically empties his pockets of $25 chips until he has $300 worth stacked in neat, four-tier piles. A change of dealers changes the run of cards and the fat man soon has his own little pile of chips cascading over the table. Then he drops $100 and is gone too.

If he cashed his chips and ran, he’d be the exception. In Calgary and Edmonton during August casinos were clearing $10,000 a day. It’s the biggest thing to happen to charities since the first girl scout cookies lit out of the bakery. In one August week in Calgary, the Pembrooke Meadows Community Association made $25.000 on Monday and Tuesday, the Silver Springs Community Association net| ted just over $20,000 on Wednesday and Thursday, the Fraternal Order of Eagles raised $19,000 on Friday and Saturday. Counting everything from horse racing to bingo, Albertans gambled away $220 million last year. That’s $183 for every adult, $103 a head more than their American counterparts spent.

Clearly, Albertans are hooked. In Calgary, a city where you’d have trouble getting a majority to agree on motherhood and God, a poll found 75% of the city in favor of charity casinos. Government and police are growing increasingly uneasy, however. Attorney General Jim Foster worries at regular intervals that casinos will be infiltrated by professional criminals. His department, almost as regularly, issues new, stricter rules for gambling but the raucous outcry that greeted the latest I set of tightening-up proposals saved the status quo, at least until February. The delay doesn’t sit well with police. Calgary Police Chief Brian Sawyer calls casinos ! “dangerous moral corrupters . . . temptations for crime figures.” He predicted last March it would be “only a matter of time until the Calgary Convention Centre becomes a gambling emporium operating six nights a week.”

In fact, the only thing rescuing the Convention Centre from that fate is the Alberta government’s decree that there can be only one casino operating in a city on any one day—the centre has to share Calgary business with other hotels and the occasional clubhouse. Without that damper, Calgary and Edmonton would rival Fas Vegas. Ficensing officials are swamped with 10 applicants for every available casino date.

The casino craze started quietly. In 1967, the Edmonton Exhibition decided a few blackjack tables would add a gold rush touch to the annual Klondike Days celebration. By this summer, the original four tables had exploded into the Golden Garter Casino: jack tables and four roulette wheels humming along 16 hours a day, 10 days in a row. Even so, Edmonton has been outstripped by Calgary. The Stampede this year ran 120 blackjack tables and four rou-

lette wheels, the largest casino the world offers.

If Albertans aren’t as bet-happy as the British bookmakers, they have taken more of a fancy to casinos than other Canadians. Since 1970 amendments to the Criminal Code, any province can license casinos for charitable or religious groups or during agricultural fairs. Most provinces do, sporadically, and every summer the Yukon sets up Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall for the tourists. But only in Alberta have casinos become a year-round entertainment. Daily gambling is limited to Calgary and Edmonton but a casino-less night in either city leaves players as twitchy as an addict in search of a fix. “We were lucky because the casino ahead of us canceled out at the last minute,” says a volunteer who recently mounted a casino. “When we were setting up the day before, we had a steady stream of people coming in to ask us if we were operating. By the time we opened, the lineup stretched all the way down the hall and out to the street.”

Lineups at high noon were routine last year but with more casinos slated this year, crushes haven’t been as common and profits have been halved, down from last fall’s average $40,000 take on a two-day casino. Overall spending is up though. In 1974,209 events grossed $4.3 million and netted $824,000. In 1975, there were 354 casinos and the gross had climbed to $ 11.3 million, net profits to more than two million dollars. Last year, the number of casinos rose to 460, the gross hit $23.7 million and profits totaled $4.7 million. Profits this year are

sure to top six million dollars.

The provincial government took a while to start viewing the trend with alarm. Four years ago, a Calgary charity was ripped off by its rented help but charges didn’t stick. Three years ago, a cheating scandal erupted at the Stampede when two dealers were found to be collaborating with four players. Both were treated as isolated incidents until Attorney General Foster popped up in the legislature last year to announce he had solid reason to believe outof-province “underworld interests” were behind the “startling” rush of applications for casino permits. “You’ll never know what took you,” he thundered at charities but the Attorney General has been infuriatingly vague about what organizations are threatened, what “interests outside Canada” are coming into Alberta looking for a “bonanza” and what kind of “questionable deals” are being promoted by “certain promoters.”

Whatever the threat, the lid started coming down last summer. Cities were limited to one casino at a time, organizations were cut back from week-long casinos to twoday events, once a year. The Calgary and Edmonton exhibitions escaped the twoday rule but lost their spring and fall casinos and license fees jumped to about $30,000 from $1,000. Table limits were set at $25 for casinos up to 50 tables, $50 for events with 120 tables. Players even got a break: dealers lost their “hole” card, all

cards are now dealt face up. Last spring, the government tried another tactic. Dealers working 12-hour shifts were cut back to the eight-hour shift stipulated by the labor act. This fall, the government planned to cut casino hours back to eight a day, limit dealers’ pay and beef up the bank a casino starts with. The proposals were sidelined after an avalanche of protests.

Even the government’s own casino watchdog went to bat for the casinos. Ron Sheppard, 43, hired by the government in March, 1976, to coordinate casino controls, recommends no more controls on salaries, management fees and rental costs. A 17year veteran of the RCMP’S gambling squad, Sheppard says flatly that Alberta’s casino rules are already the tightest in Canada. “The Edmonton Exhibition went through $3.1 million last year and in the end there was only $4.50 unaccounted for. Show me a corporation handling that much money that does as well.” A 24hour-a-day hot line, set up by Sheppard to take gambling complaints, rarely gets a report on a casino irregularity. And the controls have won acclaim from Rouge Et Noir, an international casino newsletter. It reports that a symposium of American and Canadian law officials were “impressed” by Alberta techniques. “The procedures, which borrow little from Nevada, are deemed by law enforcement experts to be the most effective in the world today.”

Local police remain skeptical. “What the hell do the Eagles know about running casinos?” asks one inspector. “They’re at the mercy of the people they hire.” Malcolm Grant, organizer of the Pembrooke Meadows August casino, admits he’s no expert. “I’ve never even been to Las Vegas. I had no idea what a casino was and I wouldn’t recognize organized crime if I fell over it. But I really can’t see the problem.” Grant points out that charities rent equipment, dealers and advisers but the rented help is forbidden to touch any money. Community volunteers handling money go through a system of checks and counterchecks, tabulating every dime in tripli-

cate, until there’s “ 15 pounds of paperwork by the end of the night.” Every volunteer is cleared by the AG’S department, casino money is guarded by a security force and transported by Brinks, government officials hover to make sure everything is running smoothly.

Further rule-tightening would only open the way for organized crime, casinowide volunteers argue. Clubs now borrow the casino float, usually $20,000 to $25,000 from local banks, offering as collateral on a three-day loan either association property or the personal signatures of three members. A government proposal to increase the bank, perhaps to $70,000, would be an

invitation to loan sharks and underworld money sources, they claim. “A small group is going to have trouble coming up with $70,000,” says Fred Tokarek, a former director of the Federation of Calgary Communities. “Banks think twice about lending that kind of money and no three people are going to want to sign for it. It’ll throw the whole business into the hands of undesirables offering to put up front money for a percentage of the take.”

No one seriously expects the Mafia to start taking out community group memberships to get in on the action. Dealers, most of them trained at annual exhibitionsponsored schools, are impeccably respectable housewives, university students and moonlighters. Don Hardie, who deals a casino once a month as a hobby, says there are no full-time Alberta dealers yet, although one can make $600 during a 10day fair. Even though Albertans are paid more than Las Vegas dealers—five dollars an hour—eight-hour shifts cut down the take, tips are scant and it’s a “mentally and physically demandingjob .. . too much to handle six days a week.” That leaves the equipment supplier suspect. To dodge the flack, suppliers—half a dozen in Calgary, five in Edmonton—keep a low profile, not even protesting a government proposal to limit table rentals to $25 a night. But suppliers also argue the government’s controls are inviolable. “I could see organized crime getting involved if we went to Vegas style casinos with private hotels operating year round for their own profit,” says Wilf Gardner of Imperial Amusements. “But

the only thing we could steal now are players’ coats. That’s the only thing we get near.”

Suppliers, volunteers and gaming officials share one wonder. Casino traffic dumbfounds them all. A regular clientele stalks the casinos almost nightly, but where they get their money is anyone’s guess. “We don’t get the Cadillac trade,” says a volunteer. “It’s mostly working-class people and old-age pensioners but they’re tossing around $ 100 bills.” Big winners are rare. Miloslav Nosal, a statistics professor at the University of Calgary who has studied gambling for a decade, has never heard of an Albertan winning more than a couple of thousand dollars. It’s possible. A Chicago soldier won $137,000 at blackjack during the Second World War and two Americans broke Havana in 1958 when they took an estimated $250,000 over several days. It’s more likely, Nosal grumbles, to get “hooked and ruined” gambling. “I’ve talked to two people recently who were complete ruins. They were spending days and nights trying to develop winning systems. Real mental cases. Gambling is mentally, physically and psychologically dangerous, more dangerous than alcohol by far. The government is raking in money on gambling. It should be investing some of that on studies into the sociological implications, on education. But there’s nothing being done here.”

Nosal’s is a lonely voice. An attempt to

start a Gamblers’ Anonymous floundered when not a single potential member signed up. The government hot line hasn’t had a complaint about anyone blowing the grocery money on blackjack. Alberta pawnbrokers haven’t an entertaining store of yarns, like their Reno counterparts, about guys prying out their gold fillings with pliers or trying to hock their wooden leg to raise money for the tables.

Still in dispute is whether Albertans have any notion what they’re doing. Alberta-Las Vegas traffic has always been brisk, currently four flights daily to Vegas, two to Reno (compared with only five daily flights to Toronto). But if some Albertans commute regularly and presumably learn how to gamble, others make the experts shudder. “I’ve never seen so many incompetent players under one roof,” sputters a Vegas regular hoping to be reincarnated “as a guy who owns a blackjack casino in Calgary.” Dealers say there are good blackjack players and bad, while roulette hasn’t caught on “probably because it looks incomprehensible to the average person.” Schoolteacher Linda Bakos, who dealt on the Alberta fair circuit this summer, says three expert players will control a whole table and give the house a run for its money. “Then there’s the guy who dropped $600 in an hour and the people who split 10s which are almost an auto¡ matic win. You get all kinds.”

The Chinese community, however, earns everyone’s respect. Alberta legend has fan-tan players equipping Chinatown gambling rooms with low, skinny doorways. Players could slip through at sonic speed, burly, pursuing police jammed fast. The Chinese have moved their expertise downtown to the casinos, says volunteer Dave Slessor who regretfully watched two depart the Silver Springs casino with $1,000 profits. “They play in groups, trying to work a system. One system, which may or may not work, is to have the last guy, the anchor man, bet low then deliberately bust in hope of pulling a face card away from the dealer. That often gives his friends,

who bet high, a better chance to win. You’ll see the winners tossing the anchor man $ 10 bills to keep going.”

Mathematician Nosal, who programmed the U of C computer to defeat any blackjack dealer, claims systems work but the human brain isn’t up to memorizing all it must. Computers can but so far aren’t unobtrusive enough to slip into a casino. But the computer cons have started. Harrah’s Lake Tahoe last spring spotted a consistent winner who seemed more intent on his pocket than his cards. When his winnings hit $18,000, security moved in, searchedand found electronic paraphernalia. The rest of his team were

grabbed, and later let go. There’s no law yet against blackjack computers. Nosal predicts mini-computers that can’t be detected will be financially feasible in three years. “Then the casinos are in trouble.”

That thought is already haunting the get-rich-quick dreams of churches and charities. “Nobody’s gone down yet,” is the refrain volunteers recite with the reverence accorded a mass. One cleared only $7,000 in two days, $ 10,000 a day isn’t as good as last year’s $20,000. “ But you’d have to sell a lot of cookies to make that kind of money. Nothing else legal makes as much. I don’t know how long it can last but while it does ...”

The floating blackjack game meantime, has circled around Calgary and come to rest for another weekend at the Convention Centre. At 5 p.m. on a Friday, the bars are full of singles postponing the prospect of going home alone. The gambling crowd is solitary by choice. They come in couples and groups and split automatically at the door, to poise over separate tables, ready to jostle themselves the first empty stool. A ponytailed Indian bumps elbows with a balding hippie in a beaded shirt ... a vivacious woman in a sari and a uniformed cabbie share quiet curses ... a gaggle of Chinese women sympathize with a prosperous looking executive who had just dropped eight $25 chips in a row. Mostly they’re silent, intent on the cards. It’s hard to believe several hundred people have so little to say to each other. But the chips never stop clattering.Q