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If you live in Melbourne or Perth and enjoy feeling broke and disgusted with yourself, you'll know Crown Casinos. They're our own little taste of Vegas, but with just enough pokies to retain a local flavour. In Melbourne that's an impressive 2,628 pokies, spread over two entire city blocks of 90s Timezone carpet and fountains that smell like swimming pools. And Perth's Crown is probably shit too, but I've never been there so we're focusing on Melbourne.
Regardless of how bad its reputation is, Melbourne Crown made a profit of $352.5 million in 2016 and started building a fourth hotel. So apparently they're doing something right, and I believe that if lots of people like something then it's generally got merit. I decided I'd judged it from a distance long enough, and should give it a shot.
And that's how I ended up spending 24 hours at Crown and losing my mind.
Friday: 10 AM
This is Mahmood. He's a VICE writer and former bikie, so he was the right friend to bring along. "How many times have you been here?" I asked as we got breakfast in the food court. "Lots," he said.
The rules were that we had to do everything in the most ultimate Crown way. We'd get a room, wear shit suits, and gamble heaps on credit. And as check-in was still an hour away, I had just enough time to lose a quick pineapple and admire the decor.
The carpet is one of Crown's most dramatic features. Each bar, restaurant, and gaming floor has its own carpet to channel the right mood in the proper places. And I immediately knew what this carpet was channeling.
It was channeling those blobs you get out of toilet gel dispensers. Those things that look like flowers but they kill bacteria to keep your family safe. It wanted me to think how bad things can be sanitised, like poo and gambling. And it wanted me to think about how gambling can be cute, like flowers. It was all very clever.
After that it was time to check in. The room was clean and perfect for both romantic couples and BCG employees. Also it presented a good opportunity to take pseudo rich-guy photos like these. Mahmood was really enjoying himself, whereas I had a sense of foreboding and I couldn't relax. "Just chill the fuck out," he advised.
I realised we'd hit upon one of the essential divides between people who get and don't get casinos. Mahmood gets casinos because he doesn't take them seriously. He's grown up under the influence of iced-out Tupac culture and developed a healthy respect for luxury. He instinctively knew the point of Moet and Gucci, whereas I looked at that stuff and felt angry. Angry because there are starving children in Japan, or somewhere, and angry because I'll never be like George Clooney. But Mahmood didn't bother with all that. He just leaned in and had a sick one.
When I explained to Mahmood my ethical reservations about luxury he said it was time to go shopping. Not real shopping. Fake shopping.
This is a $44,000 Rolex Presidential and it's made of 18K gold. Mahmood told the sales rep he was a famous writer from Dubai and she looked bored and let us try it on. And it felt… good. Like smoking during anal. Or staring at a wall through a beggar's face. Actually, I couldn't believe how good it felt.
So then I tried on a $5,000 suit at Hugo Boss and put a photo on Instagram and got more likes than any other photo ever. Even my ex liked it, which was dramatic. I made a mental note to text her later, after drinks.
With all that pretending to be rich, time flew past and soon it was time to meet up with Father James Grant—Crown's resident priest. If you're thinking, wait, Crown has a priest? then yes, Crown has a priest and he's part of the company's commitment to responsible gambling. I first met James in 2012 (it was the first story I ever did for VICE) and I asked what he thought had changed in the intervening five years. He thought a moment then replied "They're not making as much money."
It turned out that watching the crowds day in, day out, James had observed the tangible impact of online gambling, followed by a Chinese government crackdown last year, which shaved 9.1 percent off their net profits.
"The world is changing fast," he mused, watching the crowd inside. "They don't even call these places casinos any more. They're called integrated assets, which basically means they make more money from shops and the hotels than the gaming." He sighed. "That's why employment is a far more important social lever than gambling."
At first I was surprised to learn Crown's gambling facilities are making less cash, but when we went inside I noticed how the crowd was noticeably low-rent and crowded around the pokies, leaving most of the floor empty. In fact throughout the whole night we didn't see anyone I'd describe as a high roller. Most were retirement age or barely out of their teens, while around them glowed these enormous backlit signs of hot couples laughing and Chris Hemsworth applying cologne. It was depressing, so we got dinner.
On the way we walked through Crown's grand entrance, which like the rest of the building was very "completed in 1997."
If you're a piece of marble it must be easy to think you're timeless. You've been in the ground for millions of years, enduring the pressures of an entire planet. And then you get dug up in 1997 and become a piece of interior design. Only time marches on and your "style" become a bit synonymous with 1997, even though you're millions of years old. "Yuck" people say, while taking photos of you and laughing. "What were they thinking in 1997?"
I got some Chinese from a food court bain-marie and I don't know why. Australian Chinese is always either pink, orange, or jizz, and it's always mega salty. I got the jizz one with the fake seafood bits.
After dinner we hit the drinks and made a plan. We'd experienced luxury and met a casino priest, but it was now time for business at one of Crown's three night clubs. We settled on a place called "Level Three."
While I'm a dancer, Mahmood is more of a stand at the bar and heavily drink kind of guy. I had to admit he cut an imposing figure, over there.
The music was your classic dance track R&B. It was the kind of thing you can hear from cars at red lights, or from houses with couches on the lawn, and there was lots of R&B-style making out. Like when a snake dislocates its jaw and swallows prey. Also there was none of that thuggish Grey Goose-in-ice-buckets kind of thing. Everyone was young and possibly studying finance.
By 11 we were both in the mood for something else—so more gambling. We headed downstairs to the basement where $2.50 tables were full of dudes in hoodies and flannel. It was a different scene, with loud house music and even louder carpet, all pitched at a university blackjack crowd.
The carpet was very Windows Media Player. Or like that end part of 2001 a Space Odyssey when the guy goes through a wormhole. It was like that time I tried DMT and hated it and now I felt clammy looking at the carpet.
Mahmood didn't gamble. I asked him why and he said "because it's stupid." He was right, but I wanted that car. I needed that car.
I tackled the car problem while Mahmood headed back to the clubs. The problem was that I wasn't winning a car, or anything. But I felt so close. Like only the thinnest membrane of chance or time separated me from winning. It felt like I'd make my bet and then one second later I'd learn if the answer was black or red. One second later. One second is nothing. One second is a blink. But in a casino, one second is a non-negotiable piece of physics that ensures the house always wins, and I just couldn't come to terms with that.
After a long run of losses I wandered into the food court and ate some crap. I got strangers to take these photos and sure, I was acting but this posture conveyed my mood. I'd now lost a few hundred dollars, and I was pretty sure work wouldn't reimburse.
Mahmood had gone MIA on the texts, so I wandered back towards our room. The casino was still buzzing with the young and lonely, surrounded by blazing advertisements for things that would never happen. With that in mind I flipped off the fountain.
Back in the room I found this. There he was: the non-gambling, non-dancing bikie prince of making the best of a bad place. He'd been here a million times, but he'd almost certainly had a better time than me. So like him I thought fuck it and went to bed.