German casinos offer a formal way to play
Stars and Stripes October 17, 2004
“(She) could scarcely remain seated in her chair, so intent was she upon the little ball as it leapt through the notches of the ever-revolving wheel.” — “The Gambler”
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky penned those words — part of his 117-page novella — while in Wiesbaden, Germany, in the mid-1860s.
In a sense, the legendary author didn’t have much of a choice. Roulette was his game, and, on this go-around, Dostoyevsky wasn’t having any luck.
“He lost all of his money,” said Klaus Gülker, general manager of the Wiesbaden Casino. “He was forced to write ‘The Gambler’ to make money.”
So he wrote the short novel in less than a month, which enabled him to pay off his debts and get out of town, though he probably took a few more spins at the wheel.
Racecourses and gaming houses aren’t charitable organizations; they exist to provide entertainment, but at a fee, which is often not waived or reversed.
For Americans overseas willing to defy the odds, the choices are few.
Those who dare usually plop a fistful of quarters into one of the many slot machines strategically placed in military recreational areas, such as clubs and bowling alleys. But even in such “friendly” settings, the odds aren’t with the player.
In fiscal 2003, for example, Army slot machines grossed $90 million, said Pete Isaacs, chief operating officer of the Army Community and Family Support Center, which oversees the program. After expenses, 60 percent of the revenue stays in the community where it was generated. Isaacs said the money primarily goes toward nonappropriated fund construction projects.
While the vast majority of risk takers opt for the slots, another way to play is to follow Dostoyevsky’s lead, though with greater success, or, at the very least, with less loss.
In Germany, there are more than 70 casinos to choose from. There is the casino at Frankfurt International Airport, or the splendid one at Baden-Baden, a spa resort also known for its wonderful spring and summer horse racing extravaganzas.
For U.S. military and civilian personnel, there are three casinos in Saarbrücken, which is just down the road from Kaiserslautern, and another in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. The cities of Trier and Mainz also have them.
The German casinos, Isaacs said, “are lovely, well-appointed and certainly a little more formal than the average establishment back in the United States.”
As attractive as they are, Isaacs said the casinos have “an imperceptible” impact on the Army slot machine program he manages.
That’s partly due to substance and style. U.S. bases have only the so-called “one-arm bandits,” while foreign establishments offer other games, notably roulette, black jack and poker.
In addition, foreign casinos, unlike most gaming halls in Las Vegas and Reno in Nevada and Atlantic City, N.J., “are formal and very reserved,” Isaacs said. “They are quiet, and that’s just the way they do business.”
“A German casino,” Gülker said, “is like a church.”
Gülker estimates the casino he manages in Wiesbaden annually draws about 250,000 people, a third of whom are non-Germans. Of that amount, his American clientele constitutes only 1 percent to 2 percent, many being tourists.
Still, a trip to a foreign casino, such as the one in Wiesbaden, which is near the Kurhaus, is a unique experience.
Casinos in Wiesbaden date to 1771, when Carl Fürst, the duke of Nassau-Usingen, granted a local banker permission to open a gaming hall.
The decision by Fürst was a pragmatic one.
Known for its spas and mineral springs, Wiesbaden had become a popular resort for wealthy tourists, who had money to burn. In ad hoc ways, gambling soon became the rage in city hotels. Worried about unscrupulous hoteliers, the duke, ever concerned about protecting the city’s lifeline — tourism — decided it was best to bring the vice under some sort of centralized system, similar to what Baden-Baden had done three years before.
The tendency toward oversight continued down through the years.
During the Third Reich, Gülker said, casinos were allowed to operate only in spa towns, “because the government needed foreign currency.”
Local residents were prohibited from playing, too. It wasn’t until recently that casinos lifted the ban.
Today, Wiesbaden’s main gaming hall, which dates to 1907, is a small but elegant room with plush carpeting, walnut paneling, three magnificent chandeliers, a balcony and an assortment of murals.
It also contains an inviting bar and an adjoining restaurant, where, during the month of November, patrons can play “restaurant roulette.” Order a three-course meal and then spin the wheel to see how much the meal is going to cost: The meal could end up being free, or it could cost anywhere from 1 euro to 36 euros.
Next door, in a separate, distinctive building adorned with colonnades, are more than 130 slot machines. The slot room, which is open from 2 p.m. to 2 a.m., promises jackpots ranging up to 40,000 euros, and a super jackpot that can fetch someone more than 100,000 euros.
Doors to the casino open at 2:45 p.m., and remain open until at least 3 a.m. Admission is just 2.50 euros, but a suit and tie are required attire. Unlike casinos in the United States, drinks are not free, and employees are heavily dependent on the tips they receive.
On the floor, space is limited, because there are only a half dozen blackjack and roulette tables, and even less room for poker. But to play is to tread where the rich and famous, such as Elvis Presley, once laid down their bets.
“In America, the emphasis is on making money,” said Gülker, referring to the astronomical tax rate — 92 percent — his casino pays. “In Germany, it’s not about earning money. It’s about allowing people to play in a decent, legal way. It’s more personal here.”