London’s casinos have their own distinctively old-fashioned appeal. The brash, gaudy and extravagant excesses of Las Vegas, Macau or even Monte Carlo are, for the most part, not the way things are done over here. Genteel refinement and a coolly English reserve are the hallmarks of what are still some of the most famous and most prestigious gaming rooms anywhere on the planet.

But disturbing that impression of quietly restrained concentration is the enormous Hippodrome casino.  Four floors of opulent décor and a host of burlesque entertainments mark the hippodrome as a contemporary step away from London’s more conservative casino culture. Boldly announcing itself in bright neon across Leicester Square, the Hippodrome is bang up to speed with the international trend for mega casinos. You could call it a gaming changer.

The old building had been used as a circus (hence hippodrome), a theatre, a music hall and a nightclub over the previous hundred years before it was opened in its current guise in 2009 by Boris Johnson. Popular entertainment is part of the brickwork it seems. As the mayoral high profile opening might suggest, the Hippodrome is anything but the norm on London’s gaming circuit. The Hippodrome was awarded the title of the UK’s best land-based casino at the 2013 Totally Gaming Awards.

The more genteel and slightly more intimate setting of, for example, the Ritz or Mayfair’s Ambassadeurs are more stereotypical representatives of the high-end exclusivity that make London so alluring to the world’s high rollers. Games involving millions of pounds are routinely played across the tables and within the private rooms of these famous venues.

For those of us of more modest means, such extravagance is something we can only dream of. Indeed, for many the best alternative to this sort of escapist thrill is to play online. The 32Red online casino, voted the best online casino of the decade in 2010, and decorated with serial other accolades since, is perhaps the virtual equivalent of the Hippodrome if not the Ambassadeurs or its Mayfair neighbours. Boasting a seamlessly smooth and consistently rich interface 32Red delivers the full range of online casino games to an exemplary standard.

The popularity of sites like 32Red, and its many competitors – William Hill, 888, Betway, Mr Green, bgovegas etc. etc. – shows just how enduringly popular casino gaming remains. In the face of so many alternatives quite why those games should remain so popular is an enduring question. In fact, the worldwide appetite for such games appears to be growing all the time, even in places like Japan that have no historical connection with casino gaming.

For all the high-rolling exclusivity of Mayfair, all the signs are that the tide is turning towards making casino gambling a more populist – and more popular – pass-time. The Hippodrome and those online gaming sites may be the realisation of that pattern in the UK, but the rise of ever more extravagant gambling complexes across the globe – from Sun City to Singapore – is based on the custom of ordinary visitors far more than it is the international jet-set.

The super-rich aside, this has always been the staple of the casino trade. The subsidised shows and the cut priced hotel rooms in Las Vegas tell the tale of an industry catering for people with down to earth concerns and popular tastes.In this way the Hippodrome is a project that is entirely in keeping with the history of the building it occupies.

When he opened the Hippodrome, following an estimated £40 million rebuild, Boris Johnson hailed it as “yet another ringing endorsement of London as a great place to invest”. Presumably he wasn’t talking about investing in the gaming sense, but what his enthusiastic involvement does bring to light is the way national and city authorities are falling over themselves to attract casino developments. Jobs, tax revenues and hordes of free-spending tourists are manna from heaven for cash strapped politicians, whatever their leanings.And big casinos are the way to entice them in.

Perversely, the booming London economy might be a disincentive to anyone else contemplating another Hippodrome-scale development. Property and redevelopment costs are astronomical and, of course, the Hippodrome already exists, hoovering in hundreds of tourists, casual passers-by and serious gamers alike on a daily basis.

The conspicuous display of wealth that the Mayfair elite get their kicks from is a very different pastime to the thrill of a potential big-money win that the rest of us might entertain. After all, what’s another million if you’ve already got several hundred tucked away under the mattress? Seen in that light, the stiff-collared reserve of the high end looks like little more than a pose than a way to have some fun.

Within the narrow constituency of the super rich London may trade on its cachet of old-world, old money values, but as the Hippodrome and the likes of 32red suggest, that narrow view of the city is dating badly.

Image by p_a_h