In Monte Carlo, Back to the Past

Finding the ghosts of a long-gone Vegas in the land of Princess Grace


Photo by Jack Garofalo | Getty Images
A Monaco casino in 1974.

If you were born in a gambling city back when that meant you were a little different from everyone else, you grew up vaguely holding Monte Carlo as the platonic ideal of what a gambling town should be: refined, elegant and timeless. Actually visiting the place, though, reveals something quite different.

Driving by the famed Monte Carlo casino at night, it looks every inch the way you’d expect: the famous twin spires, lit seemingly by ambience alone, stand guard over a driveway filled with more Ferraris per square meter than anywhere else in the world. The inky sky above, the Mediterranean lapping somewhere behind—this is what Atlantic City aspired to when it legalized casinos nearly 40 years ago (but to which Las Vegas has been curiously indifferent).

Returning under mundane daylight the next afternoon, though, you notice that a few Toyotas have ingratiated themselves along the promenade. Stepping up to the casino entrance, there’s the feeling that you’re entering, if not hallowed ground, someplace serious—maybe a museum or a library. This is history.

The anteroom doesn’t disappoint. But one step into the casino it all falls apart. A few dozen slot machines—mostly titles long past their Las Vegas prime—line the walls. The casino’s main room is dominated by American roulette, whose double-zero layout means worse odds for players. Classic single-zero European roulette can be found, but mostly in the VIP rooms, which are largely empty, at least during the day.
And the crowd wouldn’t be out of place anywhere on the Strip: T-shirts and shorts, with just about the proportion of bad tattoos to bare skin that you’d expect in Las Vegas on a summer weekend afternoon.

In other words: the exact opposite of the stately elegance we’ve been imagining. If Atlantic City once dreamed of making itself more like Monte Carlo than Las Vegas, perhaps it has. Like Atlantic City and Las Vegas, Monte Carlo gets the bulk of its casino win from slot machines. The action is spread around four locations in addition to the original casino. The adjacent Casino Café de Paris, the design of which bears an uncanny resemblance to Reno’s Peppermill casino, is dominated by slots and “American games.”

Recent years have not been kind to Monte Carlo: In fiscal 2012, gaming revenues were about $230 million for the five casinos Monte Carlo SBM operates in Monaco—a 33 percent decline from the $347 million the operator earned in 2008, which just about matches Atlantic City’s slide during those years.

You could say that the recession has been a particularly harsh mistress to Monte Carlo. But Monaco writ large is doing fine—its reputation as Europe’s most desirous tax haven means there’s no shortage of millionaires and billionaires (hence all the Ferraris). It’s just that the enclave is no longer a major gambling destination. To put Monte Carlo’s place in the casino world in perspective, Macau made $38 billion from its casinos last year; Nevada made less than $11 billion. Monte Carlo’s $230 million puts it just under New Mexico’s $241 million in casino revenue.

Why is this? Monte Carlo’s decline as a gambling destination started long before the recession. Shifting demographics, failure to innovate, changing public tastes, new competition—these have been working against Monte Carlo since before any of us were born. Inertia and genteel respect have kept it propped up all this time.

What’s more, a quick spin through the literary artifacts of Monte Carlo’s Victorian-era golden age will tell you that it had its problems even back then. Characters just as seedy as the Hole-in-the-Wall Gang pop up with alarming regularity in the novels and memoirs that tell the tale of the casino in its heyday.

So perhaps Las Vegas was right to avoid emulating Monte Carlo (well, except for the Monte Carlo hotel). While we might think that a Mexican cantina tacked onto a Strip-front façade is an affront to Old World elegance, that’s nothing compared to the outrage of a European casino dominated by American roulette.



David G. Schwartz is the director of UNLV’s Center for Gaming Research. Follow his Tweets @UNLVGaming.