Latvia's gamblers chancing it in trying times

  • 2002-06-06
  • Jorgen Johansson

While organized gambling has been around in different forms longer than anyone cares to remember, in Latvia this chancy form of recreation has only been available to punters in the last decade. But the country has done a lot of catching up in those 10 years.

Today, there are enough players around to support 21 gambling license holders, and anyone over 18 can try to win big.

And while in the initial post-independence period it was only for the nouveau riche, the appeal of gambling is spreading together with growing prosperity.

"Ten years ago it was a sign of status to gamble, and most of all it was bandits who were doing it," said Tommy Wallin, a manager at the Tower Casino in Riga.

"When the walls came down, two kinds of people were created - those who had no money and those who had endless amounts. Today, people from the growing middle class are coming to casinos - those who can afford to spend 100 lats in a month without going broke."

Dagnija Darguze, a manager at the Labirints casino, said people who go to her establishment can play different kinds of games. Most, however, favor poker, even if the version offered in casinos differs from the one played at home with friends.

In the casino there's a betting limit, and players don't compete against each other. Everyone bets against the house, and winners are paid depending on what card combination they have.

Darguze said most of their players just come down to relax, have fun and enjoy a drink or two. In fact, all casinos in Latvia offer free drinks for players.

"We have free drinks because it makes people relax more and have a good time," said Darguze.

But there are some voices in society who condemn these activities.

The free drinks in casinos is something doctor Janis Strazdins, director of Riga's Drug Abuse Prevention Center, is strongly against.

"My opinion is that we need restrictions. Not only on alcohol but also on the number of gaming halls and where they get located, so they don't affect our younger generation," said Strazdins.

He wouldn't have to look far to find youths who have already succumbed to the temptations. Around noon on a school day, Juris Krumins, a 16-year-old student, is cutting class so he can do what he says he does best - play video poker in one of Riga's many gaming halls. And he said that others his age spend time the same way.

"I come here a couple of times a week to try and win some money. Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose," he said. "This is more interesting than going to school. Here I can relax and win money at the same time."

The under-aged gambler said he believes the machines are programmed not to give out too much in winnings. But this only encourages him to play more, because of the sensation he feels when he actually beats the machine.

"On my best day I won 45 lats ($73). This is not bad since I only started with 3.50 lats," Krumins said. "Of course, I have probably lost more than I have won, but there's always the chance of the jackpot."

The chance of winning is driving more and more people to the betting rooms. One chain of gaming halls advertises the possibility of snaring up to 10,000 lats.

Never mind that the chances are against the players getting rich.

"The house doesn't always win, but in the long-run we do. We always have the odds on our side," Wallin explained. "It's the possibility of winning that drives people to gamble. Anyone could walk through the doors and place a winning bet on the roulette table."

Of course, anyone who has ever been to a casino or a gaming hall will know that there is a chance of "hitting the big one." But then there are those who are convinced that the game is rigged in favor of the house.

But there are several things one should know before making these accusations. "Casinos in general don't cheat. It's just not worth it. They make so much money anyway," said Olegs, who worked as a casino dealer for three years in Latvia.

"Where I worked we had six cameras for every table and we had people standing next to us watching."

There are, however, more subtle ways for the casino to keep winning.

For example, Olegs said that if a player comes to a casino, wins big and fast and then heads to cash his chips, there may not be a person there to perform the transaction.

"Then the manager would probably walk up to the player and say that the cashier will be back after some 15 minutes. Well, if after 15 minutes there is still no cashier, many players go back to the tables," he said.

Another strategy is to simply change the dealers if a particular croupier is having a losing streak.

For many, gambling means more than just placing a bet on red on the roulette table or raising a bet with a low pair in poker.

Strazdins believes gambling is just like any other drug, even though there are no statistics on how many compulsive gamblers there are in Latvia. The doctor said this lack of data is due to the fact that the problem is not treated as an illness in the same way depression is.

"Compulsive gambling is a pretty new phenomenon in Latvia. It came along with independence in the early 1990s," he said. "But today every third patient who come to our center has a gambling problem."

Strazdins, along with other Latvian doctors, is trying to help those who just cannot stop themselves from playing in casinos and gaming halls.

Although there is little treatment available, Naltrexone, a drug designed to assist alcoholics, is sometimes prescribed to compulsive gamblers.

There are some involved in the business who are concerned about the problem.

According to Niklas Braathen, president of Baltic Gaming A/S, the government should earmark some of the money it receives through taxes it gets from the gaming companies for treatment. But in reality, little can be done.

"All we can do is ban people from playing when we see that it's not healthy for them," he said.

In any case, it's not cheap to enter the gambling business in Latvia. Firstly, a gaming license will cost 300,000 lats - and this has to be renewed every year for another 50,000 lats. To call a place "casino" there has to be at least one roulette table, which costs 16,500 lats in taxes annually, and two card or dice tables at 4,000 lats.

The price of a gaming license was recently raised from 50,000 lats because the market is getting saturated, according to Signe Birne, director of Latvia's gaming commission.

"Casinos must be bigger. To have 22 casinos in our small country is not necessary," she said. "I think the best would be to have five to seven casinos here."

Last year, the 21 gaming license holders had a total net turnover of 65,835 million euros ($60,000), of which their total profit was 4.422 million euros.

If this sounds like a case of under-reported earnings, there are those who would go further and allege corruption.

"It's common for casinos to hide profits to cut taxes, but this is the same for any business in Latvia," said Olegs.

Birne said the gaming license holders are protected by politicians.

"All of the 21 gaming license holders donate money to political parties across the political spectrum. Even those parties not in power get some money, but not so much," she said.

Braathen agreed partly with the charge that the industry hides profits. He claimed that, if the profit numbers are correct, his company is answering for a big part of them.

But he also said that the figures could be right, since there is so much to be paid in taxes for the gaming licenses, casino tables and slot machines.

Moreover, the equipment itself is also pretty expensive.

There were 10,488 slot machines in Latvia as of early April this year, but the Gaming Commission expects this number to decrease following a tax increase from 420 lats yearly to 600 lats effective from January 2002.