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A Gambler in Paradise

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BUSAN, South Korea -I love to gamble. There, I said it. I really love gambling. I love sidling up to a card table and buying a fat pile of chips. I love listening to the electric whir of the boot as it metes out my hand. I love the dizzying spin of the slot machine, the metallic roll of the ball on the roulette wheel, and the warm rush of pure adrenaline when I flop a pair of aces in Texas Hold ‘Em. I love playing games of chance and all that goes with it.
I love the casino.

Now, of course, this must be qualified. I love the casino when I win. Walking out of the casino’s revolving doors with a wad of free cash in your pocket is a feeling of pure elation. You feel as if God himself has smiled upon you. But what of the downside? To lose at the casino is to have your guts ripped from you. It can feel as if you’ve taken a blowtorch to your precious, hard-earned money and watched it burn. You will awaken the next day in horror, covered by a blanket of shame. You will truly taste the agony of defeat.

The Paradise Casino in Haeundae is the oldest in Korea, along with its Seoul sister, The Walker Hill. It has been in operation for over 30 years now, both delighting and demoralizing the expat community the whole time. When the blues of living abroad sometimes gnaw at you, The Paradise Casino can act as a bit of a refuge. When you walk through the front door and up the grand staircase which leads into the main room, you are greeted by bright lights and the musical sounds of electronic gambling machinery. It looks just like any proper casino in any other part of the word, and that, in a sense is soothing. You are offered both fun and possibility – an adult’s playground that can delivery you to another world. It is both familiar and exciting. Like all casinos, The Paradise offers escapism at its finest.

According to Marketing Director Lee Ki-Yong, the Paradise employs over three hundred people. It is one of several casinos operated by the Paradise Company, which also operates casinos in Seoul, Incheon, Jeju Island, and Kenya. It offers up a full array of games, including roulette, blackjack, Caribbean stud poker, baccarat, big wheel, casino war, and both video and conventional slot machines. It’s open 24 hours, 365 days a year, but like most all casinos in Korea, it is strictly foreigner only. With few exceptions, Korean nationals are not allowed to gamble, but the government is more than happy to allow a handful of casinos take money from the rest of us –and sometimes dole it out.

With gambling opportunities so limited for local Koreans, I was curious as to where and how the casino finds its dealers. “Most come from universities with casino programs,” Lee said. “We offer internships at the casino, with a three-month training period. After that we pick the best ones.” What qualities do they look for in their potential dealers? “…excellent calculation skills, smarts, good looks, and language skills are a plus.”


Pardise Casino promotional photo.

According to Mr. Lee, the approximate nationality breakdown of casino patrons is 40% Japanese, 40% Chinese, and 20% other. During my trips to the casino I have also run into a lot of Russians and ethnic Koreans that hold passports from other countries. “Up until two years ago,” Mr. Lee said, “it was mainly Japanese. But now many Chinese come. They are the biggest gamblers and love to play baccarat.” I can vouch for this, as I have seen rich Chinese throw obscene amounts of chips away at the tables of the Paradise. They take their gambling seriously.

When going to The Paradise or any other Korean casino, for that matter, you will notice a definite difference in atmosphere. Asians are much more emotionally subdued than many Westerners when they gamble. In Las Vegas it’s common and even encouraged to shout, cheer and loudly call for good luck. This is anathema to the East Asian style, however, and such behavior – while absolutely appropriate in the West – will often get you shushed in a place such as the Paradise. This can be jarring at first: YOU ARE AT THE CASINO, NO FUN ALLOWED. Sometimes Westerners take this for a kind of anti-foreign attitude, when in truth it’s mainly a culture difference that both sides often fail to understand. Couple this with the free drinks that Paradise generously serves to the players, and alcohol-fueled problems do arise: “Sometimes people drink too much and make some problems and the other customers complain,” Lee observed.

Gambling is a rush, but like any good buzz, it can be addictive. I’ve squandered money I’ve won in a vain attempt to catch that “one perfect hand,” when instead I should have walked. Stories abound of people blowing a month’s pay in one night, or much worse. If you do have a problem gambling and wish to ban yourself from the casino, it’s as simple asking the management and signing a form. Just know that once you decide to take such a step, that it is irreversible.

Many of us in the foreign community enjoy playing Texas Hold ‘Em Poker, and up until recently, The Paradise hosted a cash game. It eventually folded, due to a lack of players, but if people are interested in getting a table started, “The casino will open a table if enough people want in. The customers need to bug the casino,” stated well-known local, Johnny Choo, another member of the marketing team.

The Paradise is open for all of us to come and enjoy and is currently courting new members for their JC Membership card, which allows you free chips coupons, lottery chances, and free food and drink for each visit. It sounds like a great deal and gives you a lot of perks that would otherwise be unavailable. “Just bring your passport the first time and it’s easy to sign up,” said Lee.

My advice for future casino patrons would be to have fun, but keep it in hand. Go sober – not at four a.m. after your tenth vodka tonic. Bring a set amount of cash, and if need be, leave your cash/credit cards at home or with a friend. Be courteous to the staff and other customers, even if you’re losing. And if you happen to win a lot of money, walk while it’s still in your pocket, because it can disappear as quickly as it came.

Have fun and, pardon the cliché, good luck.

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