Beer and blackjack in the Wild East (from Casino , 2004)
The only impediment to a night of gambling and debauchery in Tallinn was the difficulty of getting hold of some cash in the first place. There were three machines close to my hotel, and none of them were working. Finally I stormed into a bank and explained my problem to the beautiful but impassive blonde behind the counter.
"We have had problem with heelectricity," she told me. "Everything has crashed."
"Can I get some money with my credit card?"
"Of course. Take a number."
I looked around the vast, bright, deserted room. It was nearly closing time and I was the sole customer. The bank employee indicated a plastic machine beside the entrance. Resigned, I strode over and jerked the pink tongue of paper from between its jaws. My number flashed onto the screen immediately, giving me permission to approach an entirely different - but similarly unoccupied - impassive blonde.
With some Estonian crowns in my pocket and this instructive example of post-Soviet service culture under my belt, I began exploring the city. I should explain at this point that I'm not a professional gambler - I was in Tallinn for a conference about media buying. That's the art of talking advertising sales people into selling airtime more cheaply than they'd like. Come to think of it, the job has elements of poker.
It was too early to do any serious gambling, apart from dropping a few coins at the Admiral Casino ( 2 Parnu Street ), which has an automated roulette wheel and a crew of noisy slot machines. I liked the staff's cute sailor outfits, but the place looked even emptier than the bank, and less likely to provide any cash.
So I walked through the snowy cobbled streets of the medieval old town until I came to the Hell Hunt - 'Hunt' means 'Hound' in this context -one of Tallinn 's most popular pubs ( 39 Pikk Street ). The painted sign showed a naked woman riding a giant black dog. Inside there was a long bar, a ceiling made out of ancient timber doors, a screen blaring Fashion TV and a scattering of metallic tables and chairs. The crowd were friendly and boisterous, and I tucked into a portion of Beowulf - which turned out to be delicious shepherd's pie - washed down by dark, syrupy Hunt Beer.
Suitably refreshed, I went back into the cold - only to be tempted by the prospect of a swift one in a bar called McCool's ( 12 Parnu Street ). It turned out to be a vast lounge with yet another oversized TV screen, this time showing the Estonian heats of the Eurovision Song Contest. Inspired, I managed to talk my neighbours - two laddish expats who worked at a software firm - into making a small wager on the winning song. I lost - and the only Estonian-language entry won.
Now it was time for the real gambling. With my new mates in tow, I headed over to the Metropol Monte Carlo Casino ( 10 Vabaduse Square ), which had been recommended by the local listings magazine. A smartly uniformed usher took our coats and showed us down the sweeping staircase, which ended in a domed room dominated by an impressive chandelier.
Despite the elaborate surroundings, the atmosphere was relaxed. A group of stag partying Finns were playing blackjack and losing with raucous good humour. We joined the roulette table, where red seemed to be running extremely hot. After a few minutes I was up about £40, but then the red seam ran out and I started losing. Naturally, as soon as I switched to black, the red numbers made a comeback. I rapidly lost the equivalent of £30. The expats lost even more heavily, so we consoled ourselves with vodkas at the bar.
The Finns were down to their last few chips when the pizza arrived. That's right - they had asked if they could order out for pizza, and the staff had obliged. The uniformed usher brought the thing down on a tray. I found it hard to imagine this happening in a spy film: "Your pizza, Mister Bond."
The following morning I picked up my hire car and drove across the frozen countryside to Riga , across the border in Latvia . Riga is bigger, poorer and scruffier than Tallinn , but it's a real party town.
This became evident when I kicked off my evening at the Pupu Lounge ( 14 Marstalu Street ). The bar had been recommended by the expats in Tallin, and it was easy to see why. It must be the most un-PC place that's ever featured in Wallpaper* (or so the barman told me). "Pupu" means "breasts" in Latvian, and the walls were decorated with floor-to-ceiling collages of naked pin-ups, from 1950s actresses to Playboy centrefolds. The place positively writhed with flesh. The effect was enhanced by the fact that the waitresses wore cleavage-enhancing bodices that made them more seductive than if they'd been topless. My drink went down slowly.
As I walked through town, I noticed that Riga was full of casinos - from glittery amusement arcades to upmarket clubs. I had been instructed to avoid the smaller places, which are allegedly used as money-laundering joints by the Russian Mafia. I had also been told that the best casino in town was in the basement of the Hotel Latvija, where I happened to be staying ( 55 Elizabetes Street ).
According to the sign outside, the Voodoo Club offered "roulette, poker, let it ride and balck jack" (sic). Before I could enter, I had to get my photograph shot for an ID card. The cashier told me that this was the result of new legislation in Latvia , where underage gambling and drinking has been a problem.
Inside, the intimate little club stuck firmly to its voodoo theme. There were African masks on the khaki-coloured walls, and all the tables had been constructed from bamboo. The waitresses wore suede costumes designed to look like animal skins. The place was busy but there was none of the levity that there had been back in Tallin. These people looked like committed gamblers.
At the bar, I got talking to a Latvian publisher called Hando. He confirmed that gambling was a popular pastime in Riga . "It's because of the fairly recent arrival of capitalism, and the gap between rich and poor," he explained. "Many people here want to become rich - to have all the trappings of capitalism - but they lack the means to do so. Gambling offers the lure of the sudden transformation."
There was to be no such transformation for me. I made the mistake of opting for multi-hand blackjack, a game of which I have a shaky grasp. The dealer was attractive, but she had the flinty-eyed look of somebody who knows when they've got a sucker on the hook. At least we were playing in lats, the Latvian currency. As one lat is the equivalent of a pound, I knew exactly how much I was losing.
I was cautious to the point of meanness, setting myself a limit of £40. I played three hands at a time. As usual, I failed to stand on numbers like 12 or 14, always hoping for the last card that would nudge me closer to my goal. My only lucky moment came when I was dealt an ace, followed by the nine of hearts. The dealer went bust, and shovelled a pile of chips over to me. The incident put me in such a confident mood that I quickly lost everything again.
I retired to the bar, where I handed over a five lat note for a two lats fifty vodka and tonic. It quickly became clear that I was not going to get any change. I raised the matter with the barmaid.
"But you said 'thank you'!' she said, astonished.
"To us, 'thank you' means 'keep the change'."
I let her keep the change. But I spent the rest of the night wondering what "please" and "excuse me" could possibly mean in Latvian.