Published on August 25, 2007
Life is a gamble, and everything we do involves some sort of risk, from high-chance favourites such as road accidents and disease to long shots like choking on a banana.
And I wonder what the odds would have been in 1923 when jockey Frank Hayes died of a heart attack during a horserace, with his mount, Sweet Kiss, finishing first and Hayes still in the saddle.
Perhaps it's the uncertainty in life that leads people into gambling - a subconscious effort to overcome fate. Anthropologists agree that gambling was in evidence 4,000 years ago in China, India, Egypt and Rome. Dice dating back to 1500 BC were found in Thebes, and related writings were discovered on tablets in the Pyramid of Cheops. Thailand, too, has a rich history of gambling.
More than 1,000 years ago, bean guessing was probably the earliest game of chance in the Land of Smiles, and in the 1800s King Rama III legalised gambling to generate tax revenue. That decision led to widespread debt and bankruptcy and increased crime, however, so King Rama V outlawed it again.
In a turnabout decision just after World War II, the Finance Ministry became responsible for running legal casinos - only for the well to do. But the law was flouted by allowing all comers to play, and the resulting debts and decline in social values prompted the ultimate clampdown.
This is Thailand
But this is Thailand - the Land of Paradox - where gambling is illegal, but a state-run lottery offers millions of baht in prize money. Punters are also free to place their bets on the gee-gees at Bangkok's Royal Turf Club and the racecourse in Chiang Mai.
For the whirr of roulette wheels and the shuffle of cards, though, gamblers must access one of the 34 casinos in the border towns of Cambodia, Burma and Laos. A 2002 study by Chulalongkorn University estimated that approximately Bt80 billion annually was gambled away by Thais in the casinos of neighbouring countries.
Betting in the North starts just across the Burmese border between Mae Sai and Tachilik. The Regina Casino Entertainment Resort offers round-the-clock gambling at 30 slot machines and 12 gambling tables, while the larger Allure Resort Casino provides 133 one-armed bandits and 16 tables.
Crossing the border to Tachilik is a matter of course for Thais, but foreigners need a Burmese visa, and they can't stay overnight. However, when crossing the water to the Golden Triangle Paradise Resort, no formalities are necessary, and foreign visitors can gamble till dawn.
There's a hint of something surreptitious about the Paradise. This sprawling, Lanna-style hotel with 144 rooms possesses an eerie silence and a carefully concealed gambling area. Prospective players must search for the "Game Room", and after finding a hallway out back - lined with video and slot machines - an unmarked door leads into the action.
For the rest of us
Meanwhile in Thailand, illegal betting on football matches, boxing, cockfights, cards and underground lotteries provides alternatives to the national lottery and horseracing.
It was recently reported that illegal gambling dens received about Bt110 million per annum, underground lotteries Bt92 million, football bookies Bt51 million and the national lottery Bt38 million. And the multibillion-baht Thai horseracing industry was said to be one of the most corrupt in Asia.
It has been proven time and again that prohibition creates a demand in drugs, alcohol and prostitution, and the above figures paint a similar picture with regards to gambling.
Nevertheless, while betting in card schools, casinos and on sport is pushed further behind closed doors, Thailand is also trying to block online gambling.
Similar attempts to arrest Internet gambling in Australia, Canada and the US have only led to the grey area of partial prohibition. The same can be said for Thailand's attempts to block gambling websites, which, like pornography, are proving futile.
On the other hand, Britain moves towards fully legalising online gambling when its UK Gambling Act becomes enforceable this autumn. The legislation will create a national gambling commission that will oversee law enforcement, licensing, underage gambling, organised crime and fair play through software for fairness accreditation and monthly-payout percentage reports.
Britain has exercised a mature attitude to gambling in taking its problems by the scruff of the neck. By legalising casinos, betting shops and now online gambling, taking bets is well above board and controllable.
After many debates on this subject, will Thailand follow the UK's example?
Perhaps it should, but I wouldn't bet on it.