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Recollections: 1975

Chris Moore Recollections:  1975 – Caspian Sea Casino, Ramsar, Persia (Iran). 

The Grand Hotel sat below green rolling hills facing the Caspian Sea.  An arrow-straight, tree-lined boulevard stretched from the front of the hotel all the way to the sea, over a mile away. At the heart of the imposing building was the Caspian Sea Casino. For pure dramatic impact, it rivaled any casino that I had seen before or since. The vast ceilings, massive chandeliers and marble columns made the gaming rooms feel like something out of a dreamlike movie.

I arrived in Ramsar on a bright Spring morning in 1975. As I paid the sleepy driver, I discovered that my suitcase had fallen from the top of his battered taxi somewhere during the four-hour drive from Tehran. Fortunately I had my passport, money and valuables in my man-purse, a compulsory fashion accessory of the day. Incredibly, late that night, a customer turned up with my battered suitcase at the casino reception. He had briefly examined the contents and concluded that the black dinner suit and white dress shirts most likely belonged to one of the staff members at the casino he was on his way to visit.

On the day I arrived I was offered an unusual new career option. One of the casino managers informed me that rather than continue to ply my trade as a croupier, I could join his newly formed “work crew”.  With great enthusiasm he explained that his group of ex-croupiers began work at eight in the morning performing a multitude of manual tasks, geared toward upgrading the resort. I weighed the options for a few moments and concluded that dealing Blackjack and Roulette was a far more attractive option than actually working for a living. During my stay in Ramsar I often witnessed the work crew clearing debris, building walls, laying paths and painting random objects in the hot sun. I never regretted my decision not to change jobs.

The casino customers on the Caspian coast were much the same as the pleasant eclectic mix I had dealt to in the mountains above Tehran. The casino action was insanely frenetic, with most of the gaming tables in action for sixteen hours a day. The owner, an ex French Roulette dealer, had somewhere developed a hatred for slot machines. He felt that the noise and flashing lights detracted from the elegance of the casino that he was so rightly proud of.  But, rather than forego the serious profits they produced, he erected a large marquee in the grounds and filled it to capacity with state-of-the-art slot machines. Most evenings there were queues to get into what became known as the “slot tent.” The tent quickly developed an unpleasant, all pervading smell of human body odor mingled with stale cigarette smoke. The mobile air conditioning units and extractor fans broke down on a very regular basis, leaving the tent virtually uninhabitable.  Working in the slot tent came with a sizable daily bonus, but volunteers were still few and far between. I volunteered one night and spent eight hours handing out change, holding my breath and regretting my greedy decision.

I can recall the heady combination of nerves and adrenaline from my first night at work. Being a newcomer in such an iconic casino, filled with so many genuine characters, was an exhilarating but also slightly intimidating experience. The all  male gaming staff were an amazing collection of individuals, ranging from an ex Harrow School Head Boy, to an illiterate Irish Gypsy, with a rainbow of characters in between. The managers and pit bosses were a random mix of old school veterans and young, talented, high-flyers. The action dictated that you needed to be at the top of your game to stay afloat in a very stormy but exciting casino sea. The blackjack games would usually have two players for every box, sometimes three. In the days before machines, two human chippers were needed at each of the American Roulette tables just to keep the games moving. The French Roulette and Baccarat tables were packed every hour of the day and night. Breaks came spasmodically, often three or four hours apart. Occasionally during a day shift, on a rarely empty table, I would be granted an insight into the histories of some of the more fascinating characters. With only a little encouragement, they  would regale me with wonderful anecdotes about Las Vegas, Nassau, Hobart, Dubrovnik, Cuba, and even Steubenville Ohio.

One of the owner’s pet community projects was the upgrading of the small, derelict local football stadium. We celebrated the reopening with a match between the casino and the town of Ramsar. The standard was not very high and I was fortunate enough to score a few goals in front of the sparse but enthusiastic crowd. A few weeks later I was invited to play for Ramsar in the under-21 national championships. I was not at all keen to go on a two week tour with a group of complete strangers, but was persuaded to participate when the boss offered to double my wages for the fortnight. Speaking not a word of Persian, I boarded the dilapidated tour bus and set off on another new adventure. We stayed in very cheap nasty hotels, each one somehow more uninviting than the last. A few times we slept on the bus, which I actually preferred. We played a series of matches culminated in a knock-out match in Tehran, which we lost heavily. Despite the fact that the Ramsar team was actually a really nice bunch of guys, I was happy to loose that game and get back to dealing. 

On our days off we learned to water ski off of the back of a speed boat that the boss had bought to keep us entertained. The work crew had by then begun an intense campaign of picking up stones from the beach and dumping them behind the dunes in an attempt to create a Caribbean-like beach club on the shoreline. Unfortunately the tide unrelentingly swept in tons more pebbles every day and eventually the boss had to follow King Canute’s example and give up his dream.  Evenings were spent eating Sturgeon kebabs and drinking beer on the boardwalk, or just drinking, smoking and reminiscing at the staff pub in the grounds of the hotel. A few budding impresarios organized the occasional staff show that brought out the very best in some of the more talented performers amongst us. Being tone-deaf and stage-shy, I was recruited to design and paint the one-off posters advertising the upcoming events featuring comedy routines, Elvis impersonators and drag-queens.

The staff pub in Ramsar was like a real one from back home. A long wooden bar, with high shelves stocked with booze, a dart board on the wall and a jukebox in the corner. The only beer served was a bottled domestic brand called Menjadi that was delivered by truck load. One week in the height of summer there was a national news story about some unfortunate people that had died in a poisoning incident in a remote part of the country. Investigations were ongoing but there was strong speculation that a contaminated batch of Menjadi beer was responsible for the tragedy. After two days of nobody drinking beer and no further news, a large group of us assembled in the pub. Each of us took an open bottle of beer as a countdown was delivered by the barman. We all drank the entire contents of our bottles and waited in silence for any adverse reaction. Fortunately it tasted exactly the same as it always did, clearly there was nothing wrong with our batch of beer.  A few days later the news revealed that the deaths had been caused by something entirely different.

One of the strange traditions that had evolved over the short time that the casino had been open,  applied when a person had quit their job. After finishing their final shift there would be a quick rendition of “we’ll meet again” in the staff pub followed by their dinner jacket being ripped from their shoulders and torn to pieces. I was blissfully unaware of this quant ritual when I naughtily headed for the bar half way through my final shift for a reviving vodka and orange. The bar was busy with people on their days off and the work crew who had been drinking for hours. I smiled as they sang the song then stood horrified as the two guys standing either side of me ripped the sleeves, collars and pockets from my jacket. I spent the last few hours of my shift dealing in a suit held together with safety pins and sticky tape.

As the Persian winter began, I finally received a long awaited letter from London offering me a job as a dealer in the Bahamas. I considered staying for a few months to complete the year but the call of the Caribbean was too strong.