The Lottery labyrinth

The resurrection of the online lottery scheme has reheated the debate surrounding this highly popular form of gambling

For 230 years Thai people have gambled on the lottery _ legit and underground, paper-based and imagination-prone. Along with every discussion of the lottery comes a whole syllabus of tangled subjects: economic value, political manipulation, tax structure, legal philosophy, morality, superstition, national character, the distribution of wealth and luck.

And now that the government has announced the resurrection of the online lottery, the on-and-off-and-on-again campaign that began with the Thaksin administration, the debate around the lotto has been dusted off and reheated.

Basically, the online lotto, in which clients (bettors, gamblers, punters, take your pick) can pick two-digit and three-digit numbers of their own choice from a machine, is a way to combat the widespread huay tai din _ underground betting houses based on the government lottery _ and take its fans above ground.

Chulalongkorn University's Social Research Institute in 2011 reported that about 19 million people bet on the underground lottery or have taken part in illegal lottery gambling. In last week's poll by the National Institute of Development Administration (Nida), 57% of the 1,255 respondents said they used to bet on huay tai din. And in a much-publicised 2003 study by Assoc Prof Sungsidh Piriyarangsan, profits from the illegal lottery were estimated at 92 billion baht a year.

Deputy Finance Minister Tanusak Lek-uthai said the online lottery machine is likely to be introduced next year, probably as "a gift" to the citizens. Meanwhile, the debate rages on. Is legalising what's illegal a way forward? Or is it more detrimental to allow things to continue the way they have been?

We take a look at the many faces of the Thai lottery, from the dream of punters to the practicality of the illegal betting houses, as well as the various forms and applications of number-based gambling played around the country. Love or loathe it, the 1st and 16th day of each month still hold a significance to the nation, above or underground.

THE PUNTERS: DREAM OR ADDICTION

Why do we play the lottery? The question is moot, only the ubiquity of it is obvious. The common perception is that both the legit lotto, in which the government serves as the bank, and underground betting on huay tai din, are popular among the working class who fantasise about easy riches and instant luck.

But in truth, the addictive pull of random numbers, or the belief in the goddess of chance, runs across social strata, age, education level, and it even defines a certain trait of Thai _ or human _ behaviour. Then there's also an easy explanation: thrill. To 'Wijitra', the purchase of either lottery tickets or the illicit huay tai din is a form of entertainment.

"It's fun. Of course, it will be nice if I win but I don't actually expect to. I just dream about what would it be like to win," says the 49-year-old woman.

Every month Wijitra, who works at a state-owned company and earns over 50,000 baht a month, spends about 6,000 baht to 12,000 baht on the underground lottery for the two draw chances on the 1st and 16th.

"Waiting for the result of the two- or three-digit winners is very exciting," she said, adding she usually places a bet on her personal lucky numbers, from her house address number to her daughter's vehicle plate number.

"I don't think there is anything wrong with buying lottery tickets or placing underground bets as long as you can afford to spend."

''Niew'', a 64-year-old convenience store owner, spends about 1,000 baht a month on underground huay tai din. She also places bets on street gambling of huay ping pong, which is usually played in broad daylight at crowded markets and which announces jackpots as often as six times a day (see P1 sidebox on street gambling).

''I have little things like this to make my life exciting every day. Those little games I only play three to four times a day and about 5 baht to 10 baht a time,'' she said, adding that she doesn't think anyone can get rich from gambling. ''Instead, you can become so poor if you're addicted to it.''

''Bo'', 33, echoes the same sentiment. She earns around 15,000 baht a month, and she used to try to supplement her income by placing around 1-2,000 baht bets on the underground lottery. ''Now I still play, but not as much. My kids are growing up, and I don't think we should be so serious about those lotto things.''

These ''players'' have mixed responses to the planned introduction of online lottery machines. Wijitra believes it's a good idea, for a technical reason, because it may fix the problem of underground agents who take betting money and flee. She also believes that the machines may help betters who're frustrated with the underground houses that put a maximum cap when betting on certain ''popular numbers'' _ an unfair practice in her view.

And yet she stresses that the minimum age of bettors must be considered.

''Niew'', meanwhile, doesn't think that the launch of the government's online lotto would convince her to switch from underground lotto to the above-ground electronic version.

''I have heard about the online lotto for many years, but I don't think I will pay much attention if it actually happens, because I've gotten used to the agent that I have played with. We have known each other for decades. For me, it is more convenient just to call the agent and that's it,'' she said.

But the bottom line is clear: they all will continue to place bets, white-knuckled tense, and wait for the fortnightly thrill of the looming lottery afternoon.

''I have never gambled big money,'' says Niew. ''Whenever I do that, I lose. But with a little amount, I sometimes win. The pay is not much, but it makes my day.''

THE HOUSE BELOW THE GROUND

Mrs T has run an underground lottery house for 14 years. Each fortnight, the money circulating through her operation is around 4 million baht.

''I'm not a big house. There are many many bigger ones all around,'' she says. Mr T also owns a computer repair shop, but the profits from taking underground bets is usually much more comfortable.

In the mechanism of huay tai din, Mrs T is the house, or the bank, who takes betting money from her agents, a kind of middlemen, who in turn take betting money from individual bettors. The profit margin is taken off each ladder (for a three-digit bet, Mrs Tee pays 500 for a 1 baht bet, her agent pays 450 for 1 baht; for two-digit, it's 70 for 1 baht and 65 for 1 baht). There are over 20 agents who ''deliver'' the bets to Mrs T.

''My heavy bettors _ one of them is a factory owner _ play 400,000 to 500,000 baht per each lottery day,'' she says. ''The lowest bettor plays 20 baht. To each his own.''

To safeguard against police crackdowns, which are few and far between (''the last time was when my kid was just a few months old, now she's in elementary school''), Mrs T uses a mobile phone that can be connected to a portable fax machine. Her agent sends a pauy _ papers detailing the betting amounts and names _ through the fax number, and Mrs T can easily run her business anywhere by taking the fax machine with her in her car as she picks up her child, or in other people's houses.

''I'm not worried that much about the online lottery,'' she says. ''We have a customer relationship _ the bettors are comfortable playing with us. We also give discounts, up to 30% if you bet big. I even let my clients pay in installments. We give them credit; with the machine, you have to pay cash.

''But if you bet small, 10 or 20 baht, yes, maybe playing with the machine is convenient.'' To manage her portfolio, Mrs T sometimes has to leverage the risk by transferring the bets on ''popular numbers'' to a bigger house. And like most houses, she sometimes puts a cap _ called un, or limit _ on the bet of hugely popular digits.

''But with my regular customers, sometimes I have to let them play what they want to keep the connection.

''With the online lottery, the jackpot will be shared among bettors who play the same number, meaning that if a lot of people play the same popular numbers, then the cash prize becomes low.''

But then the government can't be bankrupt. It won't run away. Can an underground house be brought down?

''It happened to my friend,'' says Mrs T. ''She was the biggest house in a southern province with over 40 million baht in circulation. But once the entire province gambled on the same number and hit the jackpot, and she didn't take a precaution. It was the end for her.''

About the author

columnist
Writer: Kong Rithdee
Position: Deputy Life Editor