Past a man slumped by a wall begging with an old McDonald’s cup, through a grand entrance on a side street off Leicester Square and down an escalator surrounded by crystal decorations, a strange thing is happening: “Las Vegas is coming to London.”
That is the proud boast of London Clubs International, the company behind what will be the largest casino in the country when it opens on Wednesday – the Casino at The Empire, on the former site of the old Empire Ballroom in Leicester Square.
The casino houses 1,750 punters and offers blackjack, roulette, poker and slot machines as well as two restaurants, five bars and an ice-cream stall. There will also be “Las Vegas-style dancing ladies”, a spokeswoman told Times Travel on a preview tour.
It is a multimillion-pound affair that aims to take advantage of casino rule changes being introduced in September. These will allow casinos to advertise, and to accept guests without membership or official identification. Anyone over the age of 18 will be able to turn up and play. Entry is free.
“Leisure casinos have not really been in the UK before,” said Bill Timmonds, chief executive of London Clubs International. “Only 3 per cent of people in the UK go to casinos. In the US it is 27 per cent. In France it is 16 per cent.”
The Casino at the Empire is more than 58,000 sq ft and is dominated by a huge “Fire and Ice” chandelier above a bar of the same name. There are glamorous croupiers and rows of slot machines with names such as “Wild Dolphins” and “Cleopatra”. The maximum jackpot allowed on one of these machines is GBP 4,000, while the single hand limit is GBP 10,000 on blackjack. High-rollers are expected to hang out at the Icon bar, which overlooks Leicester Square.
“It’s going to be really exciting,” said Naomi, the croupier, when Times Travel had a test run on the roulette table. “Gambling really seems to have kicked off in the UK – it’s all that online poker.”
The films Casino Royale and Ocean’s 11 have also added glamour to casino gambling, she said, spinning the roulette wheel. In the spirit of Bond, I go for a big win on the number seven (as in 007).
“No more bets, please,” says Naomi. The ball settles in number 25. I lose a small fortune… luckily not a “real” fortune: it’s just a test run.