Prague Log

Prague’s posh poker scene

Casino Palais Savarin
Na príkopé 10, Praha 1 – Nové město.
Tel. 224.221.636.
Open daily 1pm-4am. Poker every Wednesday from 7pm to 330am

Americans and poker go together like Elvis and peanut butter, which is why friendly expat poker games have popped up around Prague like mushrooms in September.

One weekly match, held in a Vinohrady pub for the past 10 years or so, counts amongst its regulars two of the city’s most prominent restaurant owners, a technology entrepreneur and a globetrotting alcohol importer. Another, drawing one of the city’s biggest real-estate moguls and a well-known film executive, is a high-stakes stunner with pots in the thousands of dollars.

Since last month, a far more egalitarian game has been holding court Wednesday nights at Casino Palais Savarin, a swanky spot on the second floor of an amazing rococo palace that, ironically, is also home to the Museum of Communism. This seven-hour seven card stud marathon, played with Vegas rules on beautiful felt-topped tables, is secreted in a lavish, wood-paneled back room with piped-in music, brocaded velvet curtains and extravagant crystal chandeliers. It’s an amazingly stylish space that wouldn’t be out of place in a James Bond fil. (Indeed, it was used as a backdrop for the card scenes in last year’s Czech hit Babi Leto.) The giddy sense of exclusivity is further heightened by an entrance sign which reads “Private Invitation Only” to keep the Great Unwashed at bay.

The game has been attracting a diverse cast of characters that includes a sculptor, a hard-core pornographer, a couple of insanely rich Czech lads of shady providence, the occasional track-suit-wearing Russian mobster and a self-proclaimed former professional poker player who loses just as often as anyone else.

You’d think you have to be a freaking Rockefeller for an invitation to join this rarefied assemblage, but the Savarin game is actually open on a first-come, first-served basis to anyone with a picture ID and a few thousand crowns to blow. The result is a surprising friendly vibe, with most players on a first-name basis and house rules that are flexible enough to bend to the table’s democratic whims.

Betting is structured and stakes are lowish: 50 Kč minimum/100 Kč maximum, though pots can rise into the thousands of crowns. The casino rakes 10 Kč per person per hand and, in return, supplies the venue, dealers and a small buffet of chlebicky and smoked ham, or greasy egg rolls and mystery meat in a chafing dish. Oh, and cocktails and cigarettes are on the house; just ask the pit boss to ring the bell for one of the waitresses.

For all its munificence, the casino only grosses about 1,300 Kč per player. It’s really quite a generous proposition that naturally provokes one to look for the catch. Then one of the chain-smoking mafiosi leaves the poker table in a huff and drops a tall stack of black chips on roulette to heal his wounded pride. Knowing smiles flash around the card room and we summon the waitress for another round.

Dan Levine has an ace up his sleeve at [email protected]

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