The highs and lows of illegal gambling
An underground casino with 100 baht bets is a gateway to a lawless world of cheating and violence
As a former supervisor of an underground casino, M promised he would make me some profit. My stake was 3,000 baht.
Some 50 people were playing at a townhouse-turned-casino in a district on the outskirts of Bangkok. The place is one of an estimated 1,500 illegal casinos nationwide, dozens of which operate on a franchise basis under the tycoons known as “Gold Dragon Teu” and “S Sommai”.
With only one table divided into two, it was so crowded that players had to ask those in the front line to place bets for them. On very crowded days, people would be five deep around the table.
The majority of small to medium-sized illegal casinos in Thailand have the dice game “hi-lo”, also known as "sic bo" in some Asian countries, as the main attraction because of the low maintenance cost.
The table contains a variety of betting options on the roll of the dice. You would win on the “low” bet if the numbers on the three dice add up to less than 11 or on the “high” bet if the numbers total 11 to 18. Just like red and black on a roulette wheel, you double your outlay if your bet is correct. Players can also bet on individual numbers and combinations for better odds, but I decided to take the low-risk option of betting on “small” for every round.
“Excuse me, could you place this on the ‘small’ side?” I gave the man sitting in front of me 500 baht, and later realised that my language was too polite for casino-talk. To be more concise, you would utter only one word: “Small.”
“Sure.” He counted the money, folded it in half, folded a small part of the top right and tossed the notes over to the “small” area. His aim was always perfect, but then the small and big areas were the largest because they were the most common wagers.
I wanted to start out with the minimum 20 baht for each bet, but M, who was eager to show off his skills, bet the lot. The house limit was 10,000 baht per person per wager.
“Stay still,” he told me each time I protested. The average amount of money placed on the table each round would sometimes add up to about 100,000 baht for the two games. I saw up to 5,000 baht from one person, but most of the time the table was covered in red 100 baht bills.
The skinny man with a stretched ear piercing and a tattoo on his right arm who took my 500 baht was a regular. Later on I would learn that his name was Boy. He was probably in his early thirties. M knew almost everyone at the place. Last month, he made 20,000 baht at this venue.
Less than a minute after I handed my money to Boy, I noticed that it was gone from the table. I had a good view sitting on a stool from the second line of the crowd, and I turned towards M, who was standing behind me.
“Where is my 500 baht?”
“It’s here,” Boy said. Everyone seemed to have no trouble looking me in the eye except him.
“Stay still,” M said in a low voice for the 20th time. He would always repeat the phrase twice. “I’ll explain later.”
Main attraction: The dice game “hi-lo” is popular because of the low maintenance cost.
It turned out that what Boy did was against the house rules, which are written on a large poster in the middle of the wall behind the hi-lo table. Although the rules clearly state that mobile phones must be switched off at all times, people still made calls, and Boy was casually checking his Facebook page on his smartphone.
The first rule of the house states that when a bet is already placed on the table, it cannot be moved. Boy moved my 500 baht bet to the “big” area. If the results were “small”, Boy would pay me back the money. This is considered cheating because if he won, my money would go to him instead of the house. He won.
It was a calculated risk on Boy’s behalf. Because he used my money to bet on “big” he pocketed 1,000 baht on the understanding that if he had placed my bet on small I would have lost anyway, so had nothing to complain about. But if “small” had won, Boy would have been obliged to pay me 1,000 baht. The big loser in this scenario is the house, which did not receive the 500 baht it would have for my losing bet.
Although the casino has a centralised security system consisting of six cameras monitored all day, no one bothered to take note of it. If this happened at his old casino, M said, Boy would have been kicked out.
The majority of players here are low to middle income earners aged over 30. I saw three with white hair, and two motorcycle-taxi drivers. About 40% of the players were women. The heavy betters, who would bet in the 10,000 baht range, come in the evening. The place had free water and meals three times a day to provide incentives for people to stay.
Although gambling is listed as one of the six vices in Buddhism, gambling laws in Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Laos and Nepal allow betting and casinos. Opening a casino in Thailand became illegal after King Rama VI prohibited gambling in 1916.
If the police decided to raid the place today, the penalty for participating in or organising hi-lo under the 1935 Gambling Act is a fine of up to 5,000 baht and/or a jail term not exceeding three years. But that would only happen if there were a change in the district’s police chief, or if police units outside the area conduct the raids.
In 2011, a total of 1,480 people were arrested during raids at 189 casinos, according to the Royal Thai Police. M said small-sized casinos like Teu’s that organise hi-lo and football betting pay 50,000-100,000 baht daily as bribes to district police, which means that their income per day is more than 100,000 baht.
The gambling economy is estimated to be worth around 600-700 billion baht, of which 40 billion is the government lottery and six to eight billion is domestic horse racing — the only two legal forms of gambling in the country.
Several years ago M had to spend a day in jail after the police raided one of S Sommai’s casinos in Bang Kapi district at 2am, arresting around 40 players as well as others from another casino nearby owned by Teu. The owners came the next morning to bail all the players out at a rate of 1,500-2,000 baht per person. They all received another 3,000 baht as an apology.
Since I was a newcomer to the casino, I received uncomfortable glances from everyone. A lady in her forties watched all my activities and movements. Like some people who come here solely for entertainment, she seldom plays herself.
“Be careful. You might get addicted,” she told me as I reached for my purse to get out more money.
On the second floor of the casino was a deserted room with a few people concentrating on their football sheets. If you get caught outside with one of these, casinos are also responsible for paying the police to let you go. Wooden benches also acted as beds for two homeless-looking men who, according to M, lost all their money. No one bothered to look at me while I was going to the unisex toilet. When I went back down, I noticed two kids aged around five, not something you would see in Las Vegas or overseas casinos where age restrictions are strict.
While some economists believe that legalising gambling would result in more of it, many want to see the industry regulated in order to increase government revenue.
Political economist Rattaphong Sonsuphap, who has conducted much research for Chulalongkorn University’s Centre for Gambling Studies, said politicians are the most problematic factors at play as they are not trusted by the general public.
“Thais do not believe that legalising gambling could be implemented in a transparent manner,” Mr Rattaphong said. “Politicians like to tell people to follow the rules, when in fact they themselves never follow the rules.”
During former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s era, there was an interest in finding ways to regulate gambling, including casinos, prompting Mr Rattaphong to question how long Thailand would be able to reject the forces of globalisation. “Society is now dominated by the elitist view that ‘if I don’t gamble, then others shouldn’t gamble too’,” said Mr Rattaphong, also an associate dean at Rangsit University’s College of Social Innovation.
SPURRING JOB CREATION
Six staff members wearing yellow and dark blue football shirts were in charge of the hi-lo table. One in the middle was responsible for ringing the bell and rolling the dice.
Four others were Cambodians who could understand Thai; they were in charge of exchanging notes and collecting money. The boss sat on a tall chair like the ones you see at swimming pools. He is in charge of the rules and monitors the game. There were people like Boy who used my 500 baht for personal gain, and then there are people who simply steal money from the table and walk away with it. No one notices until they find out that their money is gone, in which case a 500 baht fee needs to be paid for “rewinding the camera”.
Once, M said to me, he saw a man beaten up at his old casino before being dragged outside and shot dead. He was the dice roller, and used rigged dice, and he would split the profit with three or four players who would what numbers would be rolled.
And all players are taking something of a gamble since all dice are not created equal. There are weighted dice, and even dice that can change the position of their weights, and so the number that will be rolled, at the press of a remote control. M told me about another way to cheat: his uncle sold German-made luminous decks of cards to border casinos for 10,000 baht each. They came with contact lenses that could see the value of the cards.
Back at the hi-lo table, three sixes appeared. There was a loud grunt from the crowd. This is the only case where the house wins all the money.
Each round lasts about three to five minutes, depending on the number of players. When the bell rings, players have a few seconds left to place their bets. If that doesn’t stop the players, the bell rings again multiple times. Ten seconds later, the brown, woven lid of the chest holding the dice would be lifted little by little to reveal what numbers had been rolled.
Some casinos have a “caller” — a talkative guy who makes a living out of calling the numbers that appear on the dice, something that actually requires a surprising amount of skill. Callers, who enliven the atmosphere can earn thousands of baht per day, most of it coming from customers’ tips.
Silence would hit the crowd, with everyone leaning in, me on my tiptoes, to focus on the caller, who would bend down to get a good look under the lid.
I would put my fingers over my lips to ease the tension. My hand had to hold onto something.
“Six,” said the caller.
My heart dropped a beat. If the first number is a six, there is a good chance that the total would be higher than 10.
It was two o’clock — half an hour playing and I had already lost 1,000 baht. I lost four rounds in a row betting on “small”.
M was so frustrated he went out for a smoke. He recalled a time when the results were the same 10 times in a row. Outside was a Buddhist shrine. I wondered whether it ever gave anyone luck.
A man was guarding the front door, and the second door inside the casino was monitored by a teenager who would look through a rectangular hole whenever someone wanted to come in, and would open it by using a white string attached to the door knob — another one of the jobs at the casino.
When we went back inside, the digital score monitor on the wall showed that the last three results were low numbers.
Twenty minutes later I had a big win, getting back everything I had laid out plus making a 1,300 baht profit. This time, it was M who placed the bet for me. The results were 5, 4 and 2. M had placed 200 baht bets each on 5-2 and 5-3.
Players can bet on two different numbers, which must appear on at least two of the three dice.
Since we won on the 5-2 combinations, we got to keep our original 200 baht bet, plus 1,000 baht for the combination, which pays five to one.
Each time someone places more than a 200 baht bet on a combination, the house provides another 10% on top of the earnings, so we got another 100 baht. I giggled. If I gained 1,000 baht every day, I could make a living out of staying at casinos for an hour per day and earn 30,000 baht a month. There certainly were people who did that. But what were the odds?
I told M that we could leave now and be 1,300 baht ahead. People set limits on themselves all the time, but in the end, it’s a promise they often fail to keep.
At a quarter past three I lost all the profit I had gained, as well as the 3,000 baht I started with. I was frustrated, and the longer I stayed at the casino, the higher my bets were, ranging from 100 to 1,000 baht.
Later on I would learn to control my frustration when I lost my bets. I would sit still for five seconds and turn around to see the expressionless face of M.
“We didn’t win, right?” I would ask with some hope that I might have heard it wrong. Or sometimes I phrased it the other way around if he was the one who placed the bet: “Did we win?” He would always shake his head. If he was silent, that meant we lost.
Outside, I could hear a loud banging, resembling a hammering noise from a building site. M joked that he would get a job as a construction worker to pay back my losses. I told him not to bother.
As we left the casino and walked through the market, M saw a lot of familiar faces. “No one ever gets rich from gambling,” he said. “If everyone gets rich, then what will be left for the house?”
“Then why do you play, M?” Obviously for the money, I thought, but what else? That was the only question the expert couldn’t answer.
“I wonder why myself. I really don’t know.”