Ben Hills

It was 9 pm, but the sunlight was still filtering through the thick velvet curtains – white nights, they call them round here – as I took on the Amur Casino. Through the gloom I could see the croupiers idly spinning their roulette wheels, waiting for the punters. I took a sip of my Heineken beer and placed a pile of chips in front of me on the green baize blackjack tabletop.

“Sank you,” said Olga, the pretty brunette in the red bolero jacket. She dealt me a card, then another – a king and an ace. Blackjack. She pushed a larger pile of chips back to me.

It went on like this for half an hour. A winning streak you dream of. The casino employees gathered round to watch. Two Koreans playing roulette cast envious glances.

Olga dealt again and busted again. The pile of purple chips in front of me mounted. She called out and gestured at the empty rack in front of her. I had busted the bank. Mikhael, the manager, came running with more chips.

I felt like James Bond at Monte Carlo.

Me, whose greatest gamble yet was $10 in the poker machines at the Drummoyne Rowing Club – I had broken the bank.

I hadn’t intended to become rich. I hadn’t intended to be in Khabarovsk at all, actually. Aeroflot had other ideas and took off, with no announcement, while I was waiting patiently in the departure lounge among a gypsy encampment of swarthy Caucasian traders with cardboard boxes full of Chinese shirts and karaoke sets. Khabarovsk International Airport doesn’t go in for newfangled gadgets such as indicator boards.

It was Saturday. The next flight was on Monday. I had the whole weekend ahead of me. The local newspaper was not encouraging. The waxworks show(featuring Hitler, Rasputin, Stalin and Gorbachev) had already moved on to the bright lights of Vladivostok. The 1993 Miss Khabarovsk contest had come to an exciting conclusion the week before and the ice hockey team was on strike.

Khabarovsk, a city of 750,000 stuck in the wilds of eastern Siberia near the Chinese border, never claimed to be a tourist city.

Industrial is more like it. Power stations and factories, with the one”international” lodging, the Intourist Hotel, surrounded by bits of concrete which appeared to be in the process of either being erected or demolished. It was impossible to tell which.

The dining room still had those marvellous menus I remembered from Moscow in the Soviet era, listing hundreds of mouth- watering items – smoked sturgeon, black caviar blinis, beefsteak, stuffed baked carp. As you point to each one, the waitress cries nyet with mounting joy, until you surrender to the greasy soup or fricassee of army boots, which is all they really ever have.

The basement bar is also worth a visit. One visit. There, drunken package tourists from Japan are being paired off with local peroxide whores while hotel guards armed with clubs patrol the foyer outside trying to control their violent-looking pimps.

So, after your cruise on the mighty Amur River, a colourful display of folk dancing by some local matriarchs and the grim displays of the war museum, there’s nothing left to do in Khabarovsk than visit the casino, opened just a month ago, in a converted dance hall.

Founded by a local businessman, Viktor Belokurov, it was loosely modelled on a European casino and equipped with two roulette tables and five blackjack tables by a Las Vegas company.

It also has an elaborate craps (dice) pit and a table for poker -unfortunately, explains Viktor, no-one knows how to play either game and they can’t understand the instruction video that came with them.

“Can you play?” he asks eagerly.

Alas, no – they will have to get an expert over from the United States to teach them.

The blackjack and roulette croupiers also have much to learn. They were taught by the staff at one of the seven casinos that have opened up recently in Vladivostok. They, in turn, were taught in Moscow.

In spite of the lack of action this Saturday night, Viktor says business has been good. Mainly “local businessmen” (a pseudonym for the racketeers) but also a few Koreans, Chinese and Japanese. I am the first Australian.

Olga deals again. Again I win. I am unbeatable. The purple chips, the highest denomination, are piling up in front of me.

I break the bank for a second time, and for a second time Olga has to get more money. Everyone in the casino is staring at me and saying things in Russian. I hope it is things like “well played”.

I call for wooden racks to put my chips in. I fill two of them to the brim, then gamble away the loose change. I dispatch the manager to cash them in for me. Quit while you’re ahead, I say.

Eat your heart out, Kerry Packer.

I have 200 purple chips, worth 1,000 roubles each – 200,000 roubles.

Five years ago, that was worth $400,000. You could have retired for life in luxury.

Two years ago, I would have been $3,000 or so in front.

After exchanging my roubles at the Intourist Hotel, I walked away with just $177.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Tuesday 08th of June 1993
Edition: Late
Section: News and Features
Sub section:
Page: 10
Word count: 933