Bangkok’s Illegal Gambling Casinos : Throwing the Dice and Not Going to Jail by Christopher G. Moore

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Law enforcement works on the implicit premise that the officials it employs are obligated to prevent crime, and when a crime does occur, they are detailed to solve the crime, arrest the criminals, process them through the courts and finally, upon conviction, off the wrongdoer goes in leg irons (in Thailand anyway) to prison and a steady diet of red rice.

That is the theory. But isn’t this a grand social illusion that most people are guilty of participating in? How is the way illegal gambling addressed in law enforcement substantively different from your average conjurer’s sleight of hand, the skilled the magician appears to make a ball under a cup ‘disappear’? We like illusionists because although we know it isn’t real magic, we can’t help being fooled because the ‘trick’ of fooling us is so believable, so well hidden.

I want to talk about the hidden ‘trick’ that makes the illusion of illegal gambling disappear.

Hypocrisy is part of the equation used by our police and politicians. This involves saying one thing while doing something that isn’t only different; it is the opposite. All human beings sooner or later revert to hypocrisy. The compliment paid to a friend or relative or colleague about his or her dress, hair, car, promotion at work—name your poison—may be false but your phony approval smoothes the social relationship. Magicians, illusionists, and hypocrites master the art of making us believe what we know isn’t really true. They let us believe what they wish us to believe is real, even though we know there is a reality hidden from view.

When the cops enter this game, it can become entertaining and provide an interesting look at the role of policing and the political process, which ultimately has responsibility for keeping the police on the straight and narrow. We witnessed recently how the UK phone hacking scandal dragged both the police and politicians through the muddy banks of awkward questions as to how and why News of the World could have carried on a course of action for so long without anyone in charge of law enforcement knowing. Or how that management of Murdoch’s empire had no idea what had happened, when it happened, who was involved and certainly would have blown the whistle had they received knowledge of the hacking.

Closer to home, Thailand’s English language daily newspapers have been devoting considerable ink to stories of illegal gambling casinos operating in Bangkok. At the beginning the scandal, the police brass in a very Murdock-like posture insisted there were no illegal casinos in Bangkok. Then a newly elected politician, who had firsthand knowledge of local policing from his massage parlor days, produced video footage of such an illegal casino. He caught the illegal operation on film! Technology lifted the veil and there it was for the whole world to see.

The editor of the Bangkok Post wrote an op-ed piece pointing out the location of illegal casinos by various streets and districts in Bangkok. And that was likely the tip of an iceberg that is apparently immune to the political equivalent of global warming. No actual addresses, mind you, were supplied but most people could figure out how to find them. Sangsit Piriyarangsan,  chairman of the doctorate degree course of study on governance development at Chandarakasem Rajabhat University, has done research to show there are more than 170 gambling dens in Bangkok, and around 700,000 to one million gambling dens operating elsewhere in Thailand. I am not certain how a den is defined, but apparently mobile ones appear at funerals so mourners don’t miss out on the chance to place a bet. If you add the casinos and dens up the sum comes to more than total number of the Starbucks, 7-Eleven stores, KFCs, McDonalds along with other fast food chains together.

It’s hard to keep that level of business illegal activity a secret. Someone’s gonna talk. And a lot of people in Thailand are now talking and pointing fingers, wagging fingers, frowning and otherwise expressing their official disapproval.

It seems about every neighborhood has some illegal gambling operation and is permitted to operate by paying off the police and/or maintaining good relations with the right politicians. It is prevalent as the 30 baht health care. Like Bogart in Casablanca, the head cop shows up at Rick’s, takes the white envelope and orders his men to round up the usual suspects. In essence, illegal gambling is a joint venture operation. Society knows it is there. Hypocrisy ensures that illegal casinos are officially condemned as against the law.

There are periodic ‘busts’ and someone gets nominated to take the fall. He (or sometimes she) is hauled for a slap on the wrist and is back dealing blackjack before nightfall. Wink and nod, but the real business of gambling continues without interruption. People who gamble had no problem finding a place to place their bets. Those who run the casinos and the authorities make a tidy, tax-free profit. Illegal gambling in other words is all unregulated gravy, and everyone likes being on a gravy train.

And what a gravy train it is as Mr. Sangsit estimates 2 to 8 billion baht is kicked back to the police. This represents the annual amount the police are estimated to receive according to Mr. Sangsit. Forget about trains. This is a tsunami of cash that roars through the police department every year. It would take a Guinness Book-sized white envelope to stuff that much cash into. It doesn’t stop there. The casino operators rake off a cool 38 to 40 billion baht of profit each year. If this was a company listed on the SET it would have one of the largest capitalization of all companies with shares publicly sold. But this is a private affair. You can’t buy shares in illegal casinos or dens. But you might want to consider buying the Thai rights to Casino Gambling for Dummies.

This takes me to my next point. Why not legalize gambling, bring into the open, regulate it, tax it, make it part of an entertainment complex open to the general public? Singapore and Malaysia have done this—shutting down the gravy train, and turning it into public transport. That decision takes an enormous act of political will.

The advocates of legalization will run head long into those who for moral or religious reasons will take to the streets to protest that the government is about to doom its youth, its workers, its mothers and fathers to a degraded life. And the government would be directly responsible for feeding their addiction, these impulses that should be controlled. What politician wants to be labeled as an enabler to increase the number of dysfunctional families? Besides, politicians also ride the illegal casino gravy train so it isn’t that difficult for them to agree that legalizing gambling would mark the end of civilization, the disbandment of families, loose morals, and the destruction of the work ethic.

Or a conflict of interest under another name.

Hypocrisy is a wonderful common ground that the politicians and those against reform share to their mutual interest. Gambling continues. Those enriched by the underground system, grow richer, and nothing changes because no one has a better explanation than that gambling is immoral, bad or sinful. In reality, such moralizing never offers a good explanation as to the nature of change in human behavior that includes risk taking. If instead of looking at the problem of gambling as solvable through moral lectures and training—a time-honoured technique with an unbroken multi-century record of failure—why not try something else. Illegal gambling is the hallmark of a static system supported by moral guardians.

With a million illegal gambling casinos in Thailand one could conclude that deterrence of the existing laws have failed. The threat of punishment has failed. The law is dysfunctional. Those in charge of making and enforcing the law are complicit in maintaining a system that clearly privatizes illegal gambling for the benefit of the operators, the police and politicians.

Gamblers are risk takers and will find a way to place their bets. Finite resources are wagered in the hope of increasing them. People who gamble want to become richer. Gambling promises them wealth. Gamblers think of themselves as possible winners even when they lose, they feel that their bad luck with turn. This is the same irrational place where religion and most of morality serves up sermons. Sermons, however, are not good explanations. Gamblers, as history demonstrates, are willing to bet against afterlife punishment and guilt is no barrier.

Gambling is a human problem in want of a solution. Making it illegal is obviously not a solution that works. As the scandal of the illegal gambling casinos spread, heads have rolled in the Thai police force, including the Chief of Police and a police van full of generals will likely find themselves in inactivity position. But if history is any guide, new heads will replace the old ones and business will continue as usual. That tsunami of cash is far too tempting. Changing faces will not stem the temptation and corruption. The prospects for the next lot of senior police no better than those they replaced.

If a country was serious about reducing the desire for gambling and the number of people who gamble, they could do that with basic education in schools starting from a very young age. Probability and game theory through a series of games and exercises would soon instruct children that the odds of winning have nothing to do with lucky charms, magical potions or chants, or appeals to the gods. The odds can be calculated in advance whether you will win rolling dice, playing blackjack, a slot machine or any other game of chance. Probability will teach children that there is no luck, no belief system or supernatural force that will intervene on your behalf in gambling.

We don’t teach children that predicting outcomes is a risky business. We withhold from them the brutal truth—which all predictions about an outcome, call it a bet, should be discounted as they contain false starts, misconceptions, bad information, biases, rumors, and wishful thinking. Politicians exploit this flaw to their own benefit by promising to predict events in the future. It isn’t just the Thais or politicians who get this wrong. The great hedge fund crash is another example of moving the illegal casinos into Wall Street, putting lipstick on that pig, and calling it an investment rather than a gamble. And many people put up their house on that premise.

There is an equation. That equation always favors the house. Predictions are uncertain and likely wrong. It is like predicting the weather tomorrow or next week. Gambling makes a few very wealthy because of the vast number of losers who believe they will be winners. And although someone may win a number of games, the sad, cruel reality is that they will always turn up losers.

You start to understand why the moral guardians would like that even less than gambling as it strikes at the heart of their way of looking at the world. A solution that shifts the worldview by showing a scientific way of looking at risk taking might be useful to examine in the role of religion and morality in this class of crimes.

For corrupt politicians, police and the illegal gambling operators, they are far more comfortable dealing with the moral keepers of society. This becomes a pact of those who put stock in the irrational belief that continuation of the existing system, so long as the current crop of corrupt generals are disgraced and punished, is the best approach. With those fresh new police officers, the problem of illegal casinos will vanish. One shouldn’t look over the political opportunity when a new government comes in and looks for a reason to cull the existing police brass appointed by the previous government. It’s apparently not that difficult to implicate them in the gambling business. And what can the opposition do in such circumstances? Say they are going to the streets to support corrupt police generals? It is a perfect, almost free way to slay your opponents and come out looking like a moral hero.

Between calculated political advantage any government can have over the police, combined with magical, primitive thinking about the horrors of gambling, it is guaranteed the unbroken run of good luck of illegal casino and den owners will continue. Morality and amoral politicians are a powerful force and they somehow always ends indirectly supporting the side of the illegal operators. And perhaps that is one of the inherent flaws of morality in the realm of gambling; it proceeds without any sense of irony, any acknowledgment of the contradictions that the devil’s best friend is the most pious among us.

The worse aspect of widespread disrespect for the law, which is what illegal gambling on this scale represents, is it spreads alienation, cynicism, and pessimism. But the true damage is at a deeper layer. The police and politicians are compromised, their duty to the public in conflict with their private interest. Reform is to harness that huge wall of cash and channel it into public reservoirs for public use. It is our drinking water in other words.

Despite the latest crackdown in Bangkok, if you want to place a bet, I’d say the odds are in your favourite if you bet, that like Rick’s Café in Casablanca, the show will go on. Just don’t ask the piano player to play that song. To the melody of “You Must Remember This,” I leave you with a parting thought as you stand on that tarmac a smiling cop at your side as you watch the plane with your sweetheart take off, “No one gets hurt, no one dies, and everyone gets the same chance to lose.”

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