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Against All the Odds: Gambling in Cambodia

Against All the Odds: Gambling in Cambodia

The much-heralded State Lottery lasted only a few months before it withered and passed

away as a result of consumer disinterest but gambling is far from dead in Cambodia.

While not surprisingly there is no place where the chances of the gambler are better

than the dealer's, if you are hungry to lose some money, the relative odds say you

should go to the far northeastern province of Rattanakiri.

The worst odds for the gambler are in Phnom Penh. For example, near Wat Sway Bobay,

on Lenin Boulevard, gambling goes on 12 hours a day.

South of the Hotel Cambodiana, five open sided shacks cater to hundreds of gamblers

each day. The set-up is quite simple. There are ten tables in each shack. Ten girls

monitor the betting, pay off the winners and collect the losses. A circus-like barker

runs the show with a corded micro-phone attached to the ceiling.

The gamblers sit in a semi-circle facing the "barker"; refreshments are

sold immediately to the rear. The gamblers stare intently at a rice mat enclosure

whose only visible opening is a single slot on the front. Now and again a metal box

emerges from the slot containing a number. It is this number that the gamblers try

to guess.

Each table has spaces numbered from one to twelve. Normally the gambler chooses one

or more numbers and slaps down chits for 100 riel each. He-all the gamblers are men

- can distribute his bets anyway he likes. If he guesses the right number his 100

riel pays 1000, a 10-to-1 pay-off.

Before you run to slap your hard-earned money on the table it is worth considering

the long-run chances involved. If you put 100 riel on a particular number, you stand

a 1 in 12 chance of winning, assuming that the number drawing is random. You keep

your 100 riel if you win, other-wise you forfeit it.

Forfeiture occurs, on average, 11 out of 12 times, a total average loss of 1100 riel

every 12 plays. Because you can expect to win one out of 12 plays, in the long run

you stand to lose 100 riel every 12 times that you play. The "expected value

of the game" (how much you can expect to win or lose, in the long run, per play)

is a loss of 8.33 riel! Certainly it doesn't sound like much, but your losses depend

on your luck-and how much you bet at once. Some gamblers forfeit twenty or thirty

thousand riel at a time.

But limited expected losses are only indicative, not necessary, and "runs"

of good luck are possible. And that is what keeps the tables full. One participant

lost $50 (on that day 170,000 riel), cashed in a second $50 bill, and almost immediately

recouped the first $50.

Though gambling is "illegal" in Phnom Penh, don't worry about being busted.

The area draws a large number of police and soldiers, in uniform and armed with pistols

and walkie-talkies. Participants had various theories for their presence. They ranged

from loitering, to providing protection, to extortion. The police were not interviewed.

Side-walk games are also prevalent in Phnom Penh and the expected losses are much

greater. Some can be found going-on near Psah O'Russei, just beyond where the side-walk

condom merchants set up their wares at night. One popular game consists of a spinning

top with six numbers. If you can guess which of the six numbers is exposed when the

top falls over, you win 300 riel for your 100 riel bet.

But in the long run you will lose your hundred riel bet 5 out of 6 times and win

300 riel only once. In six plays you can expect to lose 500 riel and win 300.

That makes your long-run loses 33.3 riel every time you play (on a long-run basis),

much higher than the 12-number game. This is a good deal only for the dealer. But

that does not seem to effect its popularity.

The players are allowed to bet on more than one number, but if they do, average losses

increase! If you bet 100 riel on each of two numbers, you will certainly lose 100

riel every time and three out of six times you will lose two hundred. Only two out

of six times will you win three hundred (minus the 100) thus you will win 200, 2

out of 6 times, lose 200 four out of 6 times, your average loses for 6 plays is 400

riel every 6 plays. That's an average loss of 66.6 riel per play.

Gambling is not just popular in Phnom Penh, but also in the provinces. For example,

small games go on continuously during the day at the market in Ban Lung, Rattanakiri.

Though the spinning die is also played here, there is another game that is much more

favorable to the gambler. The dealers are surprisingly young.

Played with three, six-sided die, the gambler slaps his money on one or more of six

animals represented on a small mat in front of the dealer. A 100 riel bet wins 100

if the gambler can guess which of the six animal pictures will be on top when the

die are tossed. If your die is exposed twice, you win 200, and 300 riel for three

simultaneous exposures. Hiding the three die between a plate and a bowl adds to the

suspense, as they are ever-so-slowly exposed.

The over-all probability of getting the picture that you bet for exposed at least

once is 0.42 (91/216). There is a small probability that two of the die will show

your bet (0.069 = 15/216) and an extremely small probability that you will see all

three die showing your bet (1/216 = 0.00032). For a sequence of 100 riel bets, you

can expect in the long run that you will lose 6.88 riel each play.

Better than Phnom Penh, certainly-but is it worth going to Rattanakiri to play?

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