Russian Roulette: Inside Moscow's Underground Casinos
Despite a four-year ban on gambling, illegal casinos are thriving here — partly because of crooked police, and partly because law enforcement officials are confused by the murky law.
MOSCOW — It seems that slot machines are still in grocery stores here, despite a gambling ban that has been in effect for four years now. The embargo has proved ineffective, to put it charitably. Otherwise, how do you explain a police sting during the first two weeks of June that found and closed 662 gambling establishments in Moscow? There were just a couple of slot machines in some places, while others were entire casinos complete with roulette tables and card games.
Considering how quickly the police cracked down on such a large number of places, it seems clear they knew about the gambling operations beforehand. Police protection of casinos is not a secret. In fact, on June 2, Moscow's former deputy prosecutor, the primary suspect in a police protection case involving casinos, was released on bail. The whole affair includes 11 high-ranking members of the Moscow police force and prosecutor's office.
The illegal casinos have been flourishing, especially in Moscow's suburbs. Aleksei Lebedinski, a resident in one such suburb — and expand=1] a well-known singer — says that there are as many as 30 underground casinos within three kilometers of his home. Often, when casinos are shuttered by the police, the operators simply send customers text messages the next day telling them to come to a new address.
Lebedinski says he knows of some clubs that put $45,000 to $90,000 in the safe at the end of the night — a club with 30-40 machines can take in more than $1 million a month. He also says that the police protection scandal has done nothing to diminish their presence, that in fact protection rates have risen. He has personally reported illegal gambling operations to the police, only to have them ignore the tips and threaten him anonymously.
Hiding in plain sight
Strangely, underground casinos don’t even feel the need to hide in unmarked storefronts. It seems that making money with old slot machines might even be almost legal. There are many Internet ads with offers to open casinos using these old machines. This reporter answered one ad from a company called Illusion Group, saying that he had inherited a number of old slot machines from a closed casino and wanted advice on what to do with them.
[rebelmouse-image 27087209 alt="""" original_size="1024x683" expand=1]
Photo: Quinn Dombrowski
“Why get rid of them?” the woman from Illusion Group asked. “Just get rid of the bill acceptor — you can pay us to do the updates. Then you can continue making money from the machine, just like before.”
She explained that the machine would work just as it always had, but instead of inserting money into it, gamblers would pay at the cash register “to rent an entertainment machine.” In addition, each visitor would get a free lottery ticket, she said, though it wasn't clear what the slot machines were for if the visitors were just playing the lottery. The woman explained they were really just for fun, an excuse to buy the lottery ticket.
There are, in fact, plenty of so-called “lottery clubs” around the country that are completely legal. One of the largest is Bingo Boom, which has locations in 130 Russian cities and draws more than 100,000 daily visitors. There are no listed addresses for Bingo Boom clubs, and it was even fruitless trying to get an address with a call to the hotline listed on the company’s advertisement. Surprisingly, the woman on the line said that she was not authorized to give out clubs’ addresses. She offered to take my number and call back, but I declined, instead doing a quick Internet search to find one of the approximately 500 locations in Moscow.
Legal one minute, shuttered the next
It turned out there was one right next to the newsroom. And why not go in, when an enormous banner on the facade advertises a free bar? The walls are red, the light is dim. There’s a bar with several large monitors behind it.
“You don’t have to fill anything out — this is a game for idiots. For you and me,” says the 30-something guy sitting next to me. You buy a ticket for between $7 and $100, and then scan the monitors for the number printed on your ticket. You can buy several tickets at the same time, for different lotteries. The monitors show the winning number and the amount you won. The maximum win for a $7 ticket is $1,500. You don’t have to do anything — or even think. I decide to play the minimum amount and get the $7 ticket. Two minutes later, the money’s gone and the game’s over. I buy another one. Hooray! I win $30 and am up $16. Buoyed by an easy victory, I buy two more tickets and order a free drink.
[rebelmouse-image 27087210 alt="""" original_size="500x341" expand=1]
Photo: Sergey Galyonkin
There aren't many people here, and most of them are middle-aged men, who look like low-level office workers. According to the guy next to me, the place is often so packed there’s not a single free seat. He then orders another drink, this time vodka instead of beer. Especially since there were no appetizers, this is fatal. He immediately puts down four bets of $15 each. Then my wife calls. I hadn’t briefed her about my reporting trip, and I don't want to tell her I'm playing in a lottery club. So I lie. The guys around me nod their heads in understanding.
It’s a nice place to hang out, but you’re not supposed to be there for over 20 minutes without buying a ticket. After placing minimum bets over the course of an hour, I'm about $100 in the hole. I don't dare ask my neighbor how much he's lost.
I’m not the only one who feels like the games at Bingo Boom aren’t really like a lottery, even though they masquerade as such. The prosecutor in Samara argued that because the clubs allow players to lose money every five minutes, to know the results of the bet immediately and to collect any winnings on the spot, they are in fact gambling clubs. The local courts agreed, and fined then shut down Bingo Booms in the region.
Part of the problem is that in most places, the local police don’t really understand the difference between gambling and the lottery — where to draw the line between a legal and illegal club. The law itself is anything but clear. Most of the people who run lottery businesses came from the gambling world. What's more, even the casinos that are very clearly breaking the law rarely face any consequences.