Underground gambling at your own expense
Ruined lives, broken families, homes and apartments sold for nothing – these are well-known effects of underground casinos and gambling clubs. Such places are blamed for ruining people and even deaths. What are illegal gambling places in reality? A CrimeRussia journalist visited one of such underground casinos.
Federal Law from 29 of December 2006 N 244-FZ “State regulation of activities related to setting-up and running gambling business and amendments to some laws of the Russian Federation” has banned gambling establishments in the whole Russia except for the 4 special zones in the Kaliningrad Region, the Altay Krai, the Primorsky Krai, and the Krasnodar Krai. However, gambling lovers still can try their luck in any town of Russia. Let’s figure out how and why this happens.
Gambled away and happy
It was not difficult to find someone involved with the gambling industry. Soon I met Grigory, a young man from Astrakhan. He immediately told me: “I left 16 thousand in casino yesterday”. And his voice was not sad. In fact, he was proud that he can afford to lose in one evening a sum comparable with an average worker’s monthly pay in a Russian province.
“Isn’t gambling business forbidden?” – I pretend to be surprised.
Although it’s not a secret for nobody that underground casinos and gambling clubs still generate profits for their owners under disguise of internet-cafes, bookmaker companies and lottery offices. Some operate in private homes and apartments, while others – in offices, in full public view.
Media headlines report dozens of underground casinos being busted by police every month, but soon they open again, sometimes, with a new owner.
Grigory saw my interest and suggested himself to take me to one of such places.
“They won’t open to a stranger, but with me, it’s a different story,” – he explained.
“Is there security or some kind of control?” – I ask, just to be sure.
“The CIA and the KGB (Soviet Committee for State Security) at once,” - Grigory replies.
The young man confesses that he got used to gambling some 6 months ago. First, out of sheer idleness, he visited an internet casino web-site after seeing an attractive ad promising quick gains. And indeed, the fortune smiled upon him at the beginning. But then luck was with him more and more rarely. Grigory lost in the internet some 40 thousand rubles saved on apartment renovations. Money perished, but the gambling passion stayed.
On paydays, the young man started visiting an underground casino on Admiralteyskaya street in Astrakhan. But police busted this establishment soon. Then Grigory, already known in this community, found a new place recommended by other gambling lovers.
He says that he still believes in fortune, and sometimes he manages to win some money. He laughs at stories of people who had to sell their assets to pay out debts.
“I am OK, and it’s my own business how I spend my money,” – Grigory states.
He is confident that he has no gambling addiction – a recent TV bugaboo for agitable ladies.
A nomad casino
It turned out, the young man was serious when speaking of the CIA and the KGB. The level of security in an underground casino would make secret services feel jealousy. The feeling of secrecy by its own creates an espionage atmosphere. Perhaps, the high secrecy is one of the reasons why Grigory’s interest to this type of leisure does not fade away.
The gambling establishment visited by my acquaintance does not stay on the same place for more than a week. Venturous entrepreneurs, wary of law enforcement, move from one rented apartment to another all the time. Searching for the fabled place where ‘one arm bandits’, roulette, and poker tables are operating today is like completing a fascinating quest.
First Grigory sent an e-mail with a code word to a special address. The reply provided a telephone number to send a text message to. The gambling lover typed: “Where is dancing tonight?” And received the desired address with a password to be texted to the same number when we approach the underground casino door.
As it turned out, the nomad underground casino was located in a residential high-rise between Savushkina street and Komsomolskaya quay. Upon coming to the door of an ordinary apartment, Grigory sent a message. No loud sounds could be heard through the door. Somebody carefully examined us through the eyehole.
“Who is with you?” – a cool woman’s voice asked.
“Lenka, I answer for her,” – my acquaintance responded.
The fist thing to strike my eyes was the number of people inside. Around 8 pm, the 3-room apartment was absolutely packed. More than 30 people were here. Slot machines stood along the walls, beginning in the lobby. Passions ran high in the rooms full of fumes, but everybody tried to be calm: played without loud calls and disputes.
The mentioned Lenka – a plus-sized peroxide blonde in leopard pants and red top – was the administrator. She held a smartphone in one hand and a list with some names in another. After letting us with Grigory in, she immediately went to the kitchen of the rented apartment to finish her tea.
I looked around cautiously. The gamblers paid no attention to my presence, my acquaintance was already taking a seat at the roulette table. He rubbed hands joyously in anticipation of winning.
I went through the rooms looking at the play. Two thirds of the guests were men aged 30-60, although there were also some ladies. All ‘one arm bandits’ were occupied, people played cards at the tables covered with green baize. Many were anxiously watching the roulette: black or red?
There was only one dealer. However, this baldish man in black suit kept pace with everything: dealing chips to players, announcing winners, and overlooking card players who knew the rules and did not require assistance.
I noticed that two tough guys who did not play watched me, a novice, closely. I understood that they were casino guards. Still, they never approached me for the whole evening, being just passive onlookers.
Overall, the guards used force only once, when noticed that one of the visitors brought a bottle of beer. The young man was immediately bounced out of the apartment. None of the players intervened.
Don’t come here
To avoid suspicions, I purchased chips for one thousand rubles from the baldish dealer. Then joined the line to slot machines. I had to wait some 20 minutes. One of patrons noticed that I don’t know how to operate the ‘one arm bandit’ and came to help.
In fact, he played instead of me. I didn’t even listen to his explanations of rules until discovered that have spent all the chips. Five same symbols had to be drawn at once. But this never happened, of course.
“Take it easy,” – the stoutish brunet who introduced himself as Nikolay comforted me.
He told me that for three last years, he can’t imagine his life without gambling. During this time, he divorced his wife, sold his apartment and changed a dozen of jobs. I heard that Nikolay lives in a garage, while his car has been taken for debts.
But the man did not look sad. On the contrary, these shoals of life seemed to have nothing to do with him. It was obvious that everything in the underground casino really excites and captivates him.
Are all the patrons like him? No. A middle-aged man left the poker table looking very sad. A silver-haired player flung up his hands in despair and went to the balcony for a smoke.
“I haven’t seen you before. Are you here for the fist time?” – he asked after cooling down in the open air.
I understand that all underground casino patrons know each other.
“Yes, my friend brought me here.”
“That’s a bad friend. Don’t come here,” – the middle-aged gambler whispers a warning.
“But why you are here?” – I ask.
“Because, unlike you, I know what I do,” – my companion said pettishly and left.
Then Grigory approached – he lost all his money and asked me to borrow him some.
“I will definitely recoup now and return to you with interest!” – my acquaintance whispered with heartful belief.
With full understanding that he won’t recoup, I still lent him another thousand rubles, wished good luck and left. It’s difficult to stay in this atmosphere of everybody’s tension for a long time.
We used to study together with Grigory’s sister and are still friends since our student years. It was Alena who told me that her brother is becoming a gambling addict. Next day after the visit to underground casino, my ex-classmate came to me and asked: “How much Grigory owes you? I know my brother, he had definitely borrowed from you”.
Upon returning me the thousand rubles, Alena told that many people and former friends stopped talking to her because her brother owes to everyone and does not intend to repay. My friend looked very frustrated. I remembered Grigory’s yesterday bravado.
“Perhaps, it’s not that bad?” – I tried to comfort Alena.
“It’s not that bad if not at your expense,” – she replied.
It turned out that Grigory started quietly selling things from home, including antique watch from the late grandmother. This was the only item of value inherited by Alena. Not to mention the memorial value.
“Do you know who provides ‘krisha’ (protection from law) to all these underground places in Astrakhan?” – I asked my friend.
“No idea. They say, in provincial towns, like ours, such establishments are opened by Moscow owners. They operate illegal gambling networks throughout the country. The business is very profitable. There in Moscow, they make arrangements with law enforcement authorities at highest levels. Here in Astrakhan, only understrappers operate. Sometimes they are busted, but not all of them. New establishments open quickly.” – Alena said.
“In other words, the legal ban on gambling is useless?” – I asked.
“Don’t you see it yourself?” – countered my friend.
She suggested to talk to Zoya Victorovna, whose husband sold the home and fled somewhere after he had gambled away everything he had. The two women met on a local internet forum; the common distress united them.
Zoya Victorovna told me how she lost her place of living in November of the last year. The apartment officially belonged to her husband; she was registered at her mother’s place. When new owners came, it was like a thunderbolt from a clear sky. But she could do nothing about this.
“I think that the ban on gambling only makes it more tempting for big boys. Adrenaline thrills them, stupid undergrounders. And then they get addicted and can’t scramble out from debts,” - Zoya Victorovna sighs.
She does not know where is her husband or whether he is still alive. There was no word from him for many months.
Prosecution or police?
Media portals of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) and the Prosecutor’s House regularly announce that their officers have busted numerous underground casinos and gambling clubs in different towns of Russia. Every month, law enforcement authorities terminate dozens of such establishments.
However, rumors run that it’s the structures mentioned above who provide cover and protection to underground casinos, struggling fiercely with each other for this lucrative piece of cake. Of course, shouldn’t the illegal establishments open again and again, it would be impossible to report of their busting on the regular basis.
For example, this year the official web-site of the Prosecutor General’s Office of the Russian Federation announced that police officers will appear in court for patronage of illegal gambling business in Kostroma and the Arkhangelsk Region.
Forbes analysts believe that the annual turnover of gambling businesses in Russia was some 6 billion USD before the ban. Now casinos and other gambling establishments are illegal, but the income from this activity is still very high.
As practice shows, regardless of who is gambling, it’s the casino who is the ultimate winner. This business exploits the natural human desire to become rich without doing a thing. As a result, people lose more than they hoped to gain.
Unfortunately, bans very rarely provide the desired effect. Either due to our national mentality, or corrupted civil servants and low enforcement officers. But the main reason is greed for quick gain which attracts venturous entrepreneurs to this business. They grow rich and don’t care of ruined lives, broken families, and deaths.
Of course, demand creates supply. If nobody were coming to gambling places, those wouldn’t exist. The only solution is to ensure maximal public awareness of adverse effects from gambling. This provides a chance that Russians who are not patrons of illegal establishments yet, won’t hooked by illegal businessmen.
The law on limitations and restrictions of anonymizers and VPN services, which obliges them to block websites banned in Russia, has been in force for three months already. However, not a single service has performed it yet.