Like any right-thinking human being, I love free food and I'm always game for a bit of dressing up. So when the chance comes to accompany a professional poker player to a newly launched "food casino," I do a victory dance that makes the All Blacks' haka look like a shuffle to Sinatra in a retirement home.
The night is billed as "The World's First Food Casino." I think it probably is, considering we're promised the chance to bet with actual French fries and exchange our winnings for an array of burgers and sides. Similar to All-In Kitchen, the recent, temporary poker-themed restaurants that saw gamblers play for three-course dinners, the "casino" is actually a pop-up taking over an American-style diner in London's Soho.
The poker pro I'm pinning my hopes of a free dinner on is Jerome Bradpiece, who represented the UK at the International Federation of Poker's European Nations Cup and has won over £1,000,000 in poker tournaments. He messages me with burger and fries emojis as I make my way to Soho, so I'm confident his eyes are on the prize.
While there's no actual need to dress up (it's a Tuesday night and most of my fellow gamblers are sloping over after work), this doesn't deter me. I'm channelling Sharon Stone in Casino. If I can't dust off my diamante for this, I might as well buy Crocs and declare myself dead. I blag a dress off a PR in exchange for a blatant plug (cheers, LBD!) and borrow the only sample size I can get past my bum.
After some healthy exposure to infra-red radiation from the heat lamps outside the casino, Bradpiece and I reach the front of the queue. The security asks for ID, which you wouldn't need to get into a real casino. It had better be good inside.
We're greeted with a tray of Prosecco and each given what looks a small portion of McDonald's fries. Apparently there are twenty in the box and we're to bet them on roulette in exchange for casino chips and ultimately, our dinner.
Bradpiece plays poker for a living but I haven't checked his credentials for roulette.
"The most I've ever won is not worth writing home about," he tells me. "The most I've ever lost is like, £4,000."
In one night?
The roulette tables are packed three-deep and it's only when we steamroll our way to the front that we realise we're both facing a slight stumbling block over playing our French fries. Bradpiece spends up to 14 hours a day in casinos and I'm a former croupier: we realise we've been institutionalised never to put food or drink on gaming tables. It feels wrong but in the end, we ignore out inner voices and chuck the fries all over the layout.
I play blackjack with what's known as "basic strategy"—as far as I can recollect after six or so glasses of Prosecco. The gist of the game is to increase the likelihood of the dealer going bust, so you get paid regardless of how far away your cards are from adding up to 21.
We must be doing something right because we make enough to order chocolate and strawberry milkshakes. Handing over 50 chips (the standard plastic kind, this time) to the bartender, we receive our drinks. Turns out the strawberry—with real bits of fruit—is the better of the two, and Bradpiece's favourite thing of the night.
After a turn at blackjack, we walk away with enough chips to order sides. Burgers are complimentary but French fries and coleslaw are 50 chips each, onion rings 75, and mac 'n' cheese is 100. We get the lot.
"I think the burger was good enough," says Bradpiece as we devour our winnings. "It could hold its own with the kind of £10 burger companies like Tommi's, Honest Burgers, and GBK but it also wasn't anything to write home about. The chips and onion rings were standard."
We win our dessert in a round of poker. By this point, I'm struggling to eat any more but we pick a cookies and cream cake and the raspberry ripple cheesecake. As a discerning cheesecake consumer (it's the only dessert I make), it's a good result.
But was does an international poker player make of this casino cuisine?
"It was fun because it was free but there's lots of gambling venues that give you nice food and lots of nice restaurants, so I don't really feel the need to have a crossover," says Bradpiece. "If I'm being completely honest, the food isn't good enough to make a trip just on that basis."
The burgers may not be enough to satisfy the palate of a poker pro, but Bradpiece and I were able win a free dinner. Thankfully for Cancer Research UK, the charity supported by the casino, not everyone was quite as lucky and all additional buy-ins were donated at the end of the night.