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Beer and blackjack in the Wild East (from Casino , 2004)

Mark Tungate

tallin

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.

hellhunt

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.

montecarlo

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."

© 2011 Mark Tungate
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