Stratford has a new chip shop. A new casino to be precise, indeed the largest casino in the whole of the UK. It's located on the top floor of the Westfield shopping centre, because Newham council wanted it in E20 rather than down by the river. It opened yesterday at 12 noon... and if all goes to plan it'll stay open all day every day except Christmas. They'll happily take your money 24/7/364, and who knows, lucky punters might even take some away again.
The main entrance to the casino is up the escalators, up the escalators, up the escalators, near the cinema. On Day 1 there was a red rope out the front to funnel in would-be customers (dress code smart casual), plus a special queueless VIP entrance alongside. But for even less of a wait, and considerably less scrutiny, I'd recommend taking the lift from The Street outside, opposite Nike. Make sure you press the right button because on the second floor the doors open to a blank concrete corridor with a few blue cleaning cloths draped near a single chair. The third floor, however, is a completely different matter.
Stratford's new Aspers Casino covers sixty-five thousand square feet, with decor a cross between a nightclub and a first class airport lounge. The main room is long and relatively thin, with each gambling game clustered in a different part of the floor. Right down the far end is the poker room, which is probably the least glamorous part of the casino, and holds table space for 150 people. Last night I'd say that 98% of those people were men, and fairly everyday men at that, as if hordes of experts who normally play poker online had ventured out into the real world to make real money with non-virtual cards. Non-experts, step away.
Blimey there are a lot of roulette wheels on site. Some wheels are free-standing and operated by humans, with a gaggle of willing punters sat around piling fortunes in chips onto the baize. Is there a recession going on? You'd never have guessed. Other wheels are fully mechanised with surrounding seats, a bit like those bingo machines at seaside amusement arcades, but several steps up the evolutionary ladder. Press the button - Red? 17? Black? - and see if the machine will spit you out a cashback receipt. I was struck by the number of spurious statistics being broadcast above the table - the sequence of recent scores, the most and least common numbers in the last 300 spins, the spatial distribution of recent results. On a fair wheel these statistics mean absolutely bugger all, but the casino clearly wants its punters to believe there's an element of skill to what is actually an entirely random act.
Blackjack's very popular too, each table with a curve of six seats, and a sequence of cards spewing forth from the dealer's automatic shuffler. Here you'll find groups of blokey friends enjoying a punt after a day in the office, and well-dressed couples, and solo geeks trying their hardest not to go bust. Feel free to stand behind and watch - there's no pressure to join in - indeed the casino is aiming very much for the casual shopper as well as the serious punter. For those with almost no gambling nous whatsoever, the easiest game is a big spinning wheel where all you have to do is guess which of six colours will come up. That 50-1 spot is tempting, and even the 3-1 bet attracts chips from smiling optimists, but time and again it's the croupier who rakes in the greatest prize.
In one corner there's a bar, open 24 hours a day, surrounded by sport-related betting terminals. Sky Sports News rolls endlessly on a huge screen behind, especially for those who can't live without knowing the latest Brentford team news in high definition. This I suspect is because Sky Sports viewers are a key target audience for the casino, and I saw plenty throughout, beer in hand. I can also imagine bankers from the City or Canary Wharf ending up here - neither's far away by tube. But the general ambience last night was much more local, much more ordinary, and far from the elitist image of cocktails and diamonds that the word "casino" usually throws up.
The staff are easy to spot in their claret tops, keeping careful watch over each game or standing waiting to be drafted in to an empty table. They're inscrutable, as you'd hope, and quite young, and a well turned-out mix of the sexes rather than an endless parade of dolly dealers. Indeed many have been draftedin from Newham unemployment queues, which is probably the most positive contribution that this casino will make to the local economy. Otherwise you have to wonder why such a nakedly money-grabbing enterprise has been allowed to set up in the very poorest corner of London, and how many nearby residents will end up in the red rather than the black as a result.
Won big on the tables? Congratulations, now queue up at the main desk to cash in your winnings. You'll need a passport or other ID if you've won £1000 or more, those are the rules, and with minimum bets on some games at £5, even £25, one grand's a total you might easily hit. Should you want to celebrate your winnings the casino are only too willing to take them all back off you, via their slightly exclusive Sky Bar and the adjacent Clary's restaurant. They'd like you to come and spend all evening here, or all day, or even all night, and you easily could.
I wandered around observing, mingling and perusing the action, without any implicit discomfort or hassle. And then I thought I really ought to get involved, somewhere, for the full casino experience. I wasn't up for sitting at a table, not without greater skill or moral support, nor for trying my hand at an automated version of one of the main games. So I wandered over to the slots - they have 150 - because surely playing fruit machines couldn't be that hard. Wrong. These were major multi-coloured spinning beasts, with arcane accumulators and impenetrable instructions, perhaps best exemplified by the quartet of towering Sex And The City themed machines. There are no plain and simple button pushers here at Aspers, only feeders for banknotes and cryptic slots for coins.
So I gave up and wandered out - no richer, no poorer, than I'd come in. I think that'll be a rare reaction, given the casino's hypnotic lure of lights and tables. Indeed you and your mates may absolutely love the place. But watch out, because East London's seen nothing like this before, and for some a downward spin awaits.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.