There's a hierarchy of casinos in London, with Mayfair's private members' clubs at the top, and 'grind clubs' — often in or around Leicester Square — at the bottom. It's the casino equivalent of Soho House contrasted with Tiger Tiger, but the 'grind' refers to the action at the table, rather than Sambuca-fuelled stag parties thrusting to Robin Thicke.
Emma, who works in a West End casino, describes grind clubs like this: "It's bums on seats, without the frills or pandering you get in Mayfair. It's getting people in the door, spending £100. We don't care if they win or lose — because the odds are that eventually they'll lose."
Steven, who spent a decade in grind clubs, before moving to Mayfair, says: "The more spins you grind out in an hour, the more money the casino makes. Same as on blackjack — the more hands you get in, the more money you make — that's a grind action game. Physically it's harder work, because you're doing a lot more. In a grind club, you're looking at 20-30 spins, or four to six shoes of blackjack every hour, compared to 12-15 spins, or two to three shoes of blackjack an hour in a Mayfair club."
While Mayfair casinos offer a bespoke service to gamblers who bet millions, just down the road, this experience is very different.
What's the difference between working in a grind casino and working in a Mayfair casino?
Fred, who worked in a grind club for two years before moving to Mayfair, says, "when there's more money on the table, it makes more sense — suddenly people are gambling for real things. In a grind club, someone comes in with £50 and it's dull as hell for the croupier. In Mayfair, players place £5,000 bets. It's like, OK this is action! The grind club I worked in was full of pissheads — it was a glorified arcade. Moving to Mayfair changed my whole attitude towards the game."
Ben spent three years in the West End ("in a really shit grind casino, the second worst one in London") before getting a job in Mayfair. "In a grind casino, no one's worth any money," he says, "any aggression, they know they'll get kicked out, so they just grumble and agree with each other about how shit you are. In Mayfair, the punters have money, so they can be fucking arseholes. They pretty much have to kill someone to get barred — and even then, it would depend who it was!"
Emma, who spent a decade in Mayfair, before moving to the West End to take a more senior role, says, "Mayfair's very traditional — it's about the money and the bets — nothing fancy. Where I am now, they're more innovative — they're willing to try new technology, and new games coming out. We're always trying to pull in customers."
In a grind club, someone comes in with £50 and it's dull as hell for the croupier. In Mayfair, players place £5,000 bets.
Jessica spent a year in the West End before moving to Mayfair. She says: "There wasn’t time for politeness and niceties in grind clubs — it was a mass form of frantic gambling — a production line taking money off people. The maths was harder because of the volume of chips on low value games! The grind club I worked in wasn't so bad, but there was one in Chinatown where I was sent on away days and everyone was playing 25p chips! Loads of them — it's hard work! In Mayfair, you might have three chips on the table and they're each worth a thousand, so it's easy! One customer described Mayfair clubs as, 'the last bastion of English society.' It’s a glamorous world, whereas grind clubs are seedy and uncivilised."
Steven says, "in grind clubs, the dealers pace the game and run it how they want to — in Mayfair, the customers run the game for you. In grind clubs, the inspectors have to watch up to four tables, so they aren't usually as on the ball as they would be in Mayfair, where they usually watch one table. Grind clubs have chipping machines to sort the chips — you talk to your chipping machine to let off steam and no one can hear you!"
Ben adds, "working in a grind club, you can be as rude and sarcastic as you like. When you're pushing their payout towards them, you pretend you've caught your finger on the layout and knock all their stacks over, then spin while they're trying to pick them up. I used to inspect the games, and when the dealer hit an empty number on roulette, I'd lean across and give them a high-five! You can't get away with this shit in Mayfair! From the second you walk in, there's an air of grandeur and you know you have to behave yourself."
What are the punters like in grind clubs – who are they?
Ben: "Scumbags. On a weekend you get loads of students who'll do £20, but it was mostly Chinese restaurateurs doing £500-£600. You don’t know how much people earn, but there was a lot of money lending that went on."
Emma: "The way the industry's going, we know a lot more about our customers, because we have a responsibility to make sure the money we see them spending is equivalent to what we would expect them to earn. We've got people with their own companies, but the majority are chefs, or they work in a bar or McDonald's, or they're taxi drivers or bus drivers, teachers, legal secretaries. We're attached to Chinatown so we have a lot of restaurant owners and kitchen staff who work around there. They're bread and butter customers who'll do a couple of hundred quid."
Jessica: "A lot of restaurateurs. The smell of garlic over a table could be overpowering. I think most of them spent their entire lives chopping garlic."
Steven: "People with normal jobs — cab drivers, estate agents, shopkeepers. In the day, we had ones that were retired, on the sick, ex-army. Lots of small customers who haven't won in life — they're not successful people. We'd get people who'd been coming in every day for 20 years, doing their couple of hundred, making it last as long as possible. In Mayfair, they're successful people. They're used to winning in life – that's why they've got money to gamble."
How do you feel when grind club players lose their money – do you have more empathy for them than Mayfair punters?
Emma: "It depends how the customer takes it. Do I have any guilt about taking people's money? Not really. Everyone is an adult and makes a choice. You don't know the full extent of somebody's financial situation. If your customer tells you they're a chef, is that their only source of income? You don't know. You have concerns if people get distressed — then you query it more, but generally I've never been bothered whether I'm taking £1,000,000 or £100. If it bothers you, you shouldn't do the job."
Ben: "I didn’t really give a shit. You get people sitting there trying to make a tenner last all day. It is harder to watch someone getting out their last 50p, trying to scrabble £1 together to put on the number, because you know that's literally the last money they've got, than it is to watch a punter do his last 10 grand, and he's wearing a watch that costs 60 grand! But I still didn't really care. Sometimes if you saw a nice punter lose all their money and you know they're going to be skint, that's not nice. But it's like asking a barman, 'do you feel guilty that there’s alcoholics in the world?' They probably don't."
It's like asking a barman, 'do you feel guilty that there’s alcoholics in the world?'
Fred: "It doesn't depend on wealth, it depends on personality, so I felt sorry for people in all situations. I'm a sensitive boy and as a gambler myself, I definitely relate. But yeah, to an extent with the rich people you think, 'you'll probably be alright.'"
Jessica: "In grind clubs you were either dealing to people who were out for a night of entertainment, and you'd ruin it because you took their money in 15 seconds, or they couldn't afford to gamble, so you were taking money off people who couldn't afford it. I didn't feel comfortable with that."
Steven: "I felt sorry for them, but I'm not their keeper. Some of them play on it, thinking if you feel sorry for them, you'll help them win — which doesn't work! You hope the person doesn't do too badly when you're at the table, but you try not to think about the chips as money. In Mayfair, it's silly money, but in grind clubs it's amounts you can relate to — if someone's lost 500 quid, I know what I'd be like if I was £500 down!"
Is there any difference between staff conditions in Mayfair and grind clubs?
Fred: "The difference in how you're treated backstage is huge. In one grind club, the staff room is four storeys up, so you spend 10-15 minutes of a 20 minute break on the stairs. They had a strict 20 minute break rule, so if you come off the table at 2pm, you're expected back at 2.20pm. But you wouldn't even come off until five past, because of all the faffing. It was unworkable. In Mayfair, you could take a 20 minute break from when you got to the staff room. They treated you like an adult and the flexibility meant you could treat customers better — you didn't mind them asking for another spin, because it wasn't eating into your break. In a grind club, you'd spin haphazardly or you'd walk off — it's rude.
Jessica: "Mayfair clubs had much nicer dresses! The quality of food was superb, and we got a lot more break time. It was much more relaxed."
Ben: "In the grind club, all we got was water, a loaf of bread, and a big tub of sunflower spread. In Mayfair you get dinner cooked for you, snacks on hand, and a nicer staff room."
What's the best thing about working in a grind club?
Jessica: "There wasn't one. I'm a snob, I didn't like working there. I didn't like taking money off people who couldn't afford to gamble."
Ben: "The social life and the camaraderie. You had more control over the game. In Mayfair you're a puppet who spins when they tell you to spin, and the wheel has to go how fast they want it. But in a grind club you'd get on there and try and win their money. It's you against them - it's more fun."
Flair, customer service — what are you talking about? These people don’t give a shit!
Fred: "There wasn't anything. It was awful. I hate grind casinos more than I can express. In Mayfair you regained pride in the actual craft — it was dynamic and exciting — whereas in the grind casinos, you could be a robot. Flair, customer service — what are you talking about? These people don’t give a shit!"
Emma: It's so much fun — it's never dull. You meet such characters. Watching people, their body language, gauging situations — it's an interesting job. The tips are better in Mayfair but I couldn't go back there. The arrogance of Mayfair customers gets to you — I enjoy the fact that we don't accept behaviour like that."
Why did you make the move from a grind club to Mayfair?
Jessica: "I was transferred to a Mayfair club after having neuro-linguistic programming to make me enjoy my job more. It changed my attitude — I became more relaxed, and gave better customer service. Before, I didn't enjoy it and I realised that wasn't good for me, seeing as I did it for eight hours a night!"
Ben: "I was comfy where I was — I had weekends off and I was well thought of. But my girlfriend was a dealer too — we worked together and she wanted to go to Mayfair, so she talked me into it. We got table tests at a Mayfair club and they took us on as a couple. I sold my soul but I'm glad I did it because I earn at least twice as much!"
Steven: "I hoped the standards of specialism and brains would be better when I went to Mayfair. I assumed people would do the job the way I'd like to think I did it, but I was sorely disappointed."
You must meet some interesting people?
Jessica: "One night a gentleman who was not long out of prison came in with a stash of £50 notes that smelt like your grandmother's attic. They must have been hidden for years, because they were old legal tender. We were told to carry on as normal, while security watched him launder the money, then notified the authorities."
Ben: "This woman shat herself on my blackjack table. Literally shat her pants. Management wheeled their desk to the other side of the casino because the smell was so bad. They didn't ask her to leave — they just moved away so they didn't have to smell it. There were people eating sandwiches next to her — no one cared. When she left, they barred her. I had another punter sneeze on my hand as I cleared the layout. I had fucking snot on my hand, so I wiped it onto her arm."
Steven: "There was one punter coming in every day, getting to be a right pisshead. One day he was watching the wheel and threw up in it."
Fred: "No, you're dealing to morons! In a higher end casino, people tend to know how to gamble — and having deep pockets helps. In grind clubs, you've got people trying to cover the whole roulette layout — they're never going to get anywhere. They ask your advice on blackjack and when you explain basic strategy, they accuse you of trying to trip them up. They'll keep their bet the same, which means they're not even gambling — they can only lose, because blackjack's an even money game in the house's favour! You look at people who've been doing this years, and you realise you're looking into the eyes of madness. You've got a roomful of people determined to take control over fate — which is hilarious. People with their different systems. It's an extraordinary arrogance among normal, not impressively intellectual people, like, 'no, I can crack this!' It’s depressing. It's torture for everyone."
I had another punter sneeze on my hand as I cleared the layout. I had fucking snot on my hand, so I wiped it onto her arm.
Jessica: "Some young Asian ladies were playing stud poker on the same table as an elderly gentleman. As the ladies ran out of money, there were conversations, then disappearances to the toilet, and when they came back, items of jewellery would be missing and suddenly the girls had money. There were other occasions when that type of behaviour happened and nothing seemed to have changed hands. But they'd left the table for 20 minutes, then they're back, and the girl's got money. You turn a blind eye, but it's an uncomfortable blind eye."
Emma: "This woman came in once — she'd soiled herself, and you could smell it. She came in to use the bathroom and made a real mess of it. There's people that wander around trying to tap people up for money. They might not be wearing rags, but if you look closely, there are signs they don't have a home to go to. They're using the place to keep warm, especially over the winter. It's sad, but we have to get them out. If they're not there to game, they shouldn't be on the premises. In Mayfair, where punters are losing £100K, you take abuse, but where I am now, we don't take any shit — we bar people all the time. Any sign of aggressive behaviour from a customer, within seconds we've got security everywhere — they're bundled out the door as fast as possible. They'll be carried out punching and kicking. One of them spat on the female security staff. We only call the police if someone's injured, but it happens every day."
How do players try to cheat?
Jessica: "There was one evening where a gentleman was particularly successful at laying late bets, when he had a stunning lady wearing a see-through dress on his arm, distracting everyone."
Ben: "In grind clubs they do a lot more actual cheating than they do in Mayfair. Things like pushing chips on the winning number after the ball's dropped, and trying to switch cards with their mates on poker. The old, 'I said 13, not 30' on roulette, when 13 comes in. There was a guy I worked with who got sacked for colluding with punters. It was a busy roulette game and he was paying out punters for bets they hadn't called, then splitting the money outside. Another punter spotted it and grassed him up."
Emma: "The cheats in Mayfair are obvious — usually they're doing it to throw their weight around. Everyone knows they're cheating and you make a commercial decision to pay them, because you don't want to lose a £100K customer. In a grind club, you don't make commercial decisions — if you lose a £100 punter, it makes no difference to you. If they've tried to cheat, you bar them."
Steven: "One guy pushed a stack of chips onto an outside bet on roulette, after the ball dropped. I was watching four tables, but I noticed because his table had a weak dealer, so I was keeping an extra eye out. I looked him, raised an eyebrow and he took it off again. It's mainly putting chips on that shouldn't be on there, or taking off losing chips that should be on there."
All names in this article have been changed. Images of specific casinos do not relate to the casinos in the stories.
Samantha Rea can be found tweeting here.