Inside Monte Carlo’s Secret Games
What happens when the Crown Prince of Monaco and the world’s elite gamblers gather under one gilded roof?
I arrived in Monaco, as one should, by helicopter and accompanied by a pack of Instagram celebrities. They were bound for the Influencer Awards 2019, which promised to be a cut-throat affair: one nominee asked twice if I knew how many of her fellow social media specialists she was up against. Another was nominated for philanthropy, which I would have thought was one of the smaller categories.
I had arrived with another British journalist, and we enjoyed a moment of guilty schadenfreude when it turned out that we were staying at a nicer hotel than the influencers. I was punished for it a few minutes later (although he was not), when he was checked into a suite of four rooms and I got a standard double. Still, standards are relative at the Hotel de Paris. I spent eight years living in a flat less spacious than this room, and nor did it have a balcony overlooking the Casino de Monte-Carlo and the glittering Med.
We went for a stroll through Monte Carlo. It was my first visit, but it all seemed dreamily familiar - the promenade, the tunnels, the steeply twisting streets. Anyone who has watched a bit of Formula 1 or seen a Bond film or skimmed through any glossy magazine will feel at home.
The streets led us back, inexorably, to the casino, where the influencers were pouting and posing around a fountain. We tried to join them but, not being influential enough, were turned away. We did, though, have tickets for something rather more exclusive, so we returned to the hotel and changed into our dinner suits. I found a champagne cork in the pocket of mine, which seemed like a good omen.
I had been told that the Secret Games were a big deal, but I realised just how big when I had to make way for the Crown Prince of Monaco on the way to the casino. Then a BBC crew asked permission to film my arrival, through a doorway guarded by a man and a woman dressed as 1920s gangsters. I was about to join the Monte Carlo elite, hand-picked by casino management, for an evening of… well, I wasn’t quite sure.
Inside the Salle Medecins - a gilded private gaming room, half Versailles and half Vegas - the press were seated at a single table, so as not to disturb the people who deserved to be there. We talked, as journalists do, about other journalists, and then tried to work out how much the wine would have cost. A French reporter bemoaned the state of Parisian architecture. A Russian food writer bemoaned the state of food everywhere except Russia, and some places in Russia, at least temporarily. “If I don’t like a restaurant,” she said, smiling sweetly, “it will close down.”
She seemed content with what was on offer at the Secret Games. Waiters had handed out ultraviolet pens which revealed a menu written in invisible ink on heavy black cards: caviar and king crab followed by black cod and then wagyu tenderloin.
With the food came cabaret. A woman with a powerful voice belted out Material Girl. Then another woman, dressed more or less as a swan (and less with each moment that passed), lip-synched her way through Diamonds are Forever. There was jazz, too, and dancers in more prohibition-era garb. Later they passed from table to table, handing out lucky charms in the elicit-seeming guise of powder-filled bags.
It was at this point, after the Mumm and the Puligny-Montrachet Premier Cru and the Pomerol Grand Cru, that memories become a little blurred. There was dancing, and a visit to the spectacular Salle Europe, in which equally spectacular sums of money were no doubt won and lost. There was whisky, too, and then an inexplicable cab ride across Monte Carlo to a nightclub, and then more dancing, more whisky, I think, and a hazy 4am cab back to the hotel.
The next morning dawned later than usual, at lunchtime. The Hotel de Paris had laid on a restorative session of cryotherapy, which involved being shut in a freezer for three minutes at minus 110C. The goal was not, though it might have been, to preserve my body on the point of death to be revived for next year’s Secret Games - but to reinvigorate the circulation and expel post-alcohol sluggishness. It was a success, at least to the extent that lunch seemed like a viable option - although I gave the champagne a wide berth.