I leaned against the short stone wall and looked through the palm trees towards the ocean, hoping the deep blue of the Atlantic would help me gather my resolve. Behind me, across an expansive, manicured grass courtyard loomed a black-mirrored fortress with enormous red letters across the front: Casino Estoril.
It was then that the words of James Bond creator Ian Fleming popped into my head. “Do not approach casinos with timidity or reverence,” he once wrote. “They are simply fruit-machines tended by bank clerks and mechanics. Be relaxed and confident… You are one of the few people who take trouble and you are going to win and stop when you have one. You are a person of free will and iron self-discipline who will beat the machine.”
Feeling newly fortified, I turned and faced my foe. I walked purposefully across the lawn to one of the many entrances … where I read the sign that said the casino didn’t open for another three hours. Right. No matter. I decided to go for a coffee and then maybe a walk -- a determined walk, mind you -- and then press on in three hour’s time.
The reason I was in the sunny, seaside village of Estoril, Portugal in the first place was the same reason Fleming’s words were bouncing around in my brain. The city and the casino are legendary in Bond lore because they’re said to have been what inspired Fleming to dream up the superspy.
Back during the Second World War, Portugal stayed neutral and became something a wartime refuge for everyone from aristocrats on the run from the destruction to diplomats and military officers on both sides on temporary leave. Some of the most wealthy and powerful among them were drawn to idyllic Estoril, just outside Lisbon, and to its then-glamorous casino. Those movers and shakers, in turn, attracted the spies, including Fleming himself.
Fleming, a former British naval intelligence officer, purportedly said he got the idea for the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, from an experience he had in the Estoril casino in which he played a high-stakes card game across the table from a group of Nazis. John Pearson, author of the biographical The Life of Ian Fleming, writes that this account is quite exaggerated, but that’s beside the point. No Estoril, no Bond, at least as we know him.
So now, more than 70 years later, I followed in Fleming’s footsteps in the service of a little experiment: In the casino that helped create James Bond, I wanted to see if I could use 007’s own gambling systems and strategies to break the bank. If Bond could do it, could I?
Spoiler alert: No. No I could not.
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