“Casino” is one of those Italian words which can drastically change their meaning depending, either on their accentuation or their context. “Che casino!” as an exclamation means “what a mess!” “Andiamo al casino” as a statement signifies “let’s go to a brothel”. “Non fare quel casino!” as an order may mean “stop making such a racket!”
Casinò, with the accent on the last syllable means something quite different and is equivalent to the English pronunciation of the word “casino” – with the accent on the second syllable – meaning “gambling-house”.
Correct pronunciation, therefore, of this word for Italians is all-important since it may lead to a situation where one could potentially either be stripped of one’s money, or one’s clothes (or both!)
For many people, Italy has numerous “casini” (plural of “casino”), both literal and metaphorical, but, because of its strict gambling laws, possesses only four casinò (same ending for both singular and plural noun). These are at Campione d’Italia, Sanremo, Venice and St. Vincent (Val’d’Aosta). Sanremo, started in 1905, is Italy’s oldest gambling house of modern times but Venice has claims to be the oldest gaming-den with historical records going back to 1638.
Roulette is the most famous game played in the casinò of Italy and, indeed, in the other great gaming capitals of the world: Las Vegas, Montecarlo, Atlantic City, Reno and Macao. I need not described the roulette (French for “little wheel”) except to say that there are various versions of its layout, the most important being the European, with thirty-seven pockets for the ball to fall on (including zero), and the American with thirty-eight pockets.
The first form of roulette was supposedly devised in France in the eighteenth century as a circular transposition of then popular board games of chance. In Italy, the roulette wheel layout is just a rearrangement into circular motion of two popular Italian lottery-type board games, Hoca and Biribisso, these again deriving from contemporary card games of chance.
In Biribisso the players place their bets on one or more of the seventy numbered boxes on a board and the banker draws the winning numbers from a bag of seventy numbered counters. Winners receive sixty-four times the bet – all the others lose and pay at the counter.
Looking at the roulette wheel you can quite clearly see its derivation from board games and, ultimately, from card games, especially in the colours black and red.
Bagni di Lucca had a very famous and fashionable casinò in the nineteenth century which continued to attract clients well into the twentieth when its license was revoked by the Italian government and given instead to Venice. This remains a cause of grievance among some but, judging from the accounts I’ve received of large hoards of Mafiosi in dark glasses and with violin cases collecting around Ponte a Serraglio in their fast cars in the nineteen fifties it may be a blessing in disguise for present residents of that part of Bagni.
Bagni di Lucca also claims to be the place where roulette was first played (though, I hesitate to add, not invented).
There is no-one more competent to talk about the history of gambling in Bagni di Lucca than Virgilio, the barman at the Terme and an authority on the history of this aspect of local leisure activities. One of the most enjoyable evenings we spent at the Terme was that dedicated to ancient games of chance, including Biribisso. Virgilio turned himself into a croupier and demonstrated how these games were played although, of course, no bets could be taken. The demonstration took place in Bagni’s original gaming hall before Pardini’s purpose-built casinò at Ponte was finished in 1839.
A few years ago the then comune administration attempted to bring back the casinò to Bagni di Lucca under the guise of electronic roulette machines (human croupiers here would have been illegal under Italy’s strict casinò licensing laws). The elegant rooms of the casinò were filled with a variety of electronic gambling paraphernalia and slot machines which were quite at odds with the aristocratic décor and precluded the building’s use for anything else.
The venture, luckily, fell through because of lack of punters. After all, there are plenty of slot cities around the place – the bane of Italy, in fact, leading to ludopathic conditions of epidemic proportions among so much of its population. The rooms are now cleared of their automated claptrap and can be used once more for exhibitions, dances and fashion events. I would, however, suggest that a section of the casino could be dedicated to a permanent gaming museum and that not-for profit sessions could be held where the old games (giochi d’azzardo) may be demonstrated by the likes of Virgilio.
In the meanwhile, Italians flock in their millions to adjoining countries with more liberal gaming laws, such as Slovenia with its ten casinos, including Europe’s own version of Las Vegas at Nova Gorica, and the Italian government is attempting draconian measures to block internet access to the on-line gambling casinos proliferating in these times of economic difficulty when many people hope to strike it lucky in some way or other but, unfortunately, sometimes find their homes re-possessed to pay for their gaming debts.