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.

In June, authorities found and closed 662 gambling establishments in Moscow
In June, authorities found and closed 662 gambling establishments in Moscow
Aleksei Boyarskii

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.

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.

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.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020


Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!