June 2022
Thoughts on Beer

Welcome to the

Gamblers' Arms

There are times when the less salubrious bar is preferable to upmarket sophistication, writes Alastair Gilmour

 

“Now for the sports round in tonight’s pub quiz. Question 1: In which Scottish town do Queen of the South play? 

“In which Scottish town do Queen of the South play?’’Similar scenarios are played out every night of the week at hundreds of pubs across the country. The pub quiz throws up things that you know you should know, but the answers will nag long after the sheets are handed in and the likes of Sport Question 1 have been left tantalisingly blank.

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Football fixtures in a Herna Bar in Žatec, Czech Republic 

Someone who definitely knew the answer to Sport Question 1 was the woman in a Herna Bar in Žatec in the Czech Republic who painstakingly compiled the gambling odds for the day’s football shown in our photograph. Among virtually every league, liga and bundesliga in Europe listed in her neat felt-tip handwriting was the Scottish Challenge Cup Final between Brechin City and Dumfries.

Only, Dumfries’s football club is called… Queen of the South. So, how does Sport Question 1 and its ilk travel 1,081 miles from Southern Scotland to North West Bohemia and end up in a ‘bookies with beer’ for punters to ponder?

That conundrum, plus the sheer admiration for one person’s calligraphic style and effort (only to be wiped clean once today’s matches are done and dusted) has remained with me since Saturday October 20 2002 when Dumfries/Queen of the South won 2-0 to lift their first-ever national trophy.

Herna Bars – basically betting shops that serve beer – have stoked a fascination for these ‘alternative’ pubs even with updated regulations making them less of a personal destination. On my pre-breakfast stroll in Žatec, I noted the local Herna clientele was respectable, polite and well turned-out for so early on a weekend morning – particularly the young couple enjoying their simple breakfast with a beer to hand and a concern that FK Viktoria Žižkov’s day might not go the way they had anticipated. 

The young chap appeared smart in his laundered blue overalls, she was dressed for office duties, so I played with the notion that work was sadly interrupting romance as it does everywhere in the world and they were simply catching snatches of togetherness whenever and wherever they could. Today, the local Herna bar would suffice; tomorrow – Sunday – who knows.

Herna – also known as Non-Stop or 24/7 – translates loosely as ‘casino’ but that’s too simplistic a description, as Martin Macourek, director of the London-based Czech Beer Alliance, explains. (The organisation acts as an ambassador for several independent Czech craft brewers in the UK and Ireland.)

Martin says: “We used to go to Herna bars quite often when we were students and under eighteen as they would serve us beer and other alcohol without checking our IDs.

“Also, the attraction always was that they are open until very late and constitute a last resort drink possibility. This brought in very special individuals who came in without really seeking to gamble, so you would mostly find yourself in the company of alcoholics, youngsters, working-class men or football hooligans ­– I remember my local Herna bars were often full of Sparta Prague fans – plus semi-bankrupt persons or even prostitutes. And, of course, gamblers.

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Martin Macourek, Czech Beer Alliance ambassador 

“Mainstream Czech people considered these places as pretty much disgusting – for example, my girlfriend would never, ever call in.”

That is perhaps why I enjoy the Herna atmosphere. Nobody really wants to know you. Every one of us is here for a different reason. We’re loners in a room full of flashing gaming machines, piles of football coupons, a tiny television set, a metre-wide shelf with cigarette packs and bottles of beer sitting forlornly (although behind the rudimentary counter there’s a fridge full of – usually – Pilsner Urquell, Gambrinus or Kozel, plus a single keg tap). The aroma of pizza might greet you and I’m pretty sure the offer of food is a legal requirement, but few folks are tempted in my experience. Martin Macourek briefly explains the Herna rules which have changed over the years since I first slid into a corner of one as unobtrusively as possible. 

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“I understand the regulation nowadays has changed dramatically and you must go for gambling and not just for drinking,” he says. “I only have one experience when we wanted to have the last beer with my British beer partners in Slavkov, a small Moravian town, and the only place open was a Herna bar but we could not have the beer as we were told it can only be served if we play and we must register.”

Regulations always seem to interrupt fun, as our Žatec couple would no doubt testify. Years of tightening licensing legislation means the Herna is an endangered species. On one visit to Plzeň (home of Pilsner Urquell and Skoda) I opt for a lunchtime beer in the nearest Non-Stop. It’s the day after a ban has been lifted on selling spirits over 20% abv anywhere in the Czech Republic – but particularly from street-corner kiosks. 

The condition of this Skoda is possibly indicative of the clientele inside a Herna Bar in Plzeň, Czech Republic

Since 2012, police had been on the trail of a gang of fraudsters who swamped the country with illegal hooch. Several people died with dozens more rushed into intensive care, some of them blinded. Herna bars were caught up in the cleansing regime with scant regard for the semi-bankrupts, football hooligans and prostitutes that Martin Macourek recalls.

But when you think of it, respectable occupations such as stockbroking and insurance are a form of gambling – the aim is to make a profit on an investment where the balances and probabilities are set by others. The risk is entirely yours and people who commit their money on the turn of a card shouldn’t really be regarded as inferior to hedge-fund managers and currency speculators. A topic for another day, perhaps.  

I don’t entertain slot machines, but I’m no stranger to seedy bars, horse-racing, greyhound tracks, or fixed-odds football. In the Amaretto Club in Plzeň (its windows are plastered with stickers so it’s deliberately difficult to see in) a middle-aged, casually dressed customer sits down facing the counter; a regular by the way he has scraped a chair over the tiled floor, glanced at the television on the wall to his left, and nodded to the barmaid. Poker style, he stacks a neat pile of coins beside him. Seconds later she brings his beer, reaches into the purse at her hip and presses his change onto the table.  He glares straight ahead with not one glimmer of acknowledgement, not a flicker of thanks or blink of appreciation. He sits motionless, staring, staring. He takes a few sips. This is a man who is drinking to forget. Or is he drinking to remember? It might even be me he’s concerned with – I’m a stranger, after all – but one thing’s for sure, I’m not about to sidle over and ask him what’s on his mind. 

The Amaretto Bar could easily be a small pub anywhere in the world but its throbbing gaming machines are half-curtained off in a darkened room beyond the counter. Through the gap, lights flash and circle hypnotically. A young couple, similar to the pair in Žatec walk straight in, pause to order a drink before disappearing into the gloom. Regulars again, I presume.  

I continue with my Pilsner Urquell and my newspaper, trying to bone up on Czech culture, then study a European-wide football pools coupon slipped from a pile on the window ledge behind me. Slavia Prague versus Sigma Olomouc looks like a draw to me, as does the outcome of Eintracht Frankfurt and Greuther Fürth. Another customer who has been facing me over the waist-high partition drains his glass, stands unsteadily, places the beermat

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Amaretto Club Herna Bar in Plzeň, Czech Republic

back into its small holder and heads for the door and off into the October sunshine. ‘Staring man’ pockets his change and takes his beer to the now vacant seat where the view of the television is easier. A black-and-white film is showing – early Sixties, I’d guess – featuring characters in sunglasses and beautiful blondes. It’s cheesy and stagey and the plot is about a missing body (surely you lower someone clad in a deep sea diving helmet into a lake rather than shove him roughly over the side of the boat, but not in this movie you don’t). 

Our man continues to gawp, but now his target isn’t the TV action but the wall below the screen. His is indeed a troubled head. He nods for another glass of beer and by the time I’ve got to AS Roma versus Empoli in Serie A on my coupon he’s drained it, up on his feet, and on his way out the door, fleetingly looking over his shoulder towards the counter as the barmaid growls “ciao”. 

He heads straight as an arrow across the street, disregarding the traffic like Dustin Hoffman in that scene from Midnight Cowboy where he slaps the bonnet of a car, yelling, “I’m walkin’ here, I’m walkin’ here...”).

Two couples enter, laughing at his antics, and sit where Mr Stare had originally been parked. Man, do they look fierce. So do their male partners. However, it’s noticeable how unbelievably polite they are to each other and how readily they mouth a “dobry den” to the rest of us, so I nod and raise my glass in acknowledgment. 

One of them reaches into the beermat container and deals out four as you do with playing cards, just as the – unordered – foaming beer glasses are brought to the table. 

They clink tumblers and thump the table and laugh and get caught up with the midday movie. For a brief moment I consider asking if I could join them. 

But perhaps it’s better to concentrate on my beer and how MTK Budapest versus Ferencváros will end up this afternoon.

 

www.czechbeeralliance.co.uk