Problem gambling pushed underground amid Covid-19 circuit breaker

A Straits Times journalist at a block in Boon Lay being led by a man (left) to a flat where a Thai card game was to be played. Two men had watched to ensure the journalist was alone before they brought her up to the unit. She left before the session
A Straits Times journalist at a block in Boon Lay being led by a man (left) to a flat where a Thai card game was to be played.ST PHOTO: ZAIHAN MOHAMED YUSOF

With nowhere to go given the Covid-19 circuit breaker, most residents in the quiet Boon Lay neighbourhood had settled in for the night. But one resident and his friends invited some strangers - including The Straits Times - to a "friendly game" of Pok Deng, a Thai card game, at what looked to be a two-room flat last month.

Posing as an interested gambler, an ST reporter accepted the invitation and visited the premises for about 10 minutes. "There's nothing much to do at home, so we organised this. If not we'll be bored," one punter said, as he set up the game.

The reporter left before the session began. It was one of four different gambling sessions reporters were invited to attend that night.

These underground gambling sessions are some of the illicit means gamblers are using to beat the blues, as official gambling avenues like Singapore Pools and casinos remain shuttered during the circuit breaker.

Punters have also resorted to placing bets on virtual poker, "private" 4-D or Toto draws, or even e-sports, while events are put on hold.

The hush-hush gambling sessions were held across the island, ST observed, including at one residence in Upper Serangoon, and a retail complex in Dhoby Ghaut. One required gamblers to pay organisers a "commission fee" of up to $50 per game, while another touted a "No Covid" session.

Open invitations to dozens of other poker and mahjong games are sent out daily through Telegram groups. On top of breaching safe distancing measures, gambling organisers may be liable under the Common Gaming Houses Act which forbids unlicensed gambling.

The police announced last week that they had arrested 26 people and seized $8,450 in cash suspected to be the proceeds of illegal gambling activities in Everton Park, Geylang Bahru, Temple Street and Jalan Besar.

Meanwhile, some gamblers turn to online gambling platforms not operated by the Singapore Pools or Singapore Turf Club - the only two legitimate operators here.

ST found at least five different online gambling sites, with some touting "Covid-19 promotions" that offer free credits. There were "private" weekly 4-D and Toto draws to lure punters, and others that made use of existing mobile apps for gamblers to play virtual poker while real money was placed on bets offline.

When approached by ST, an organiser said players should transfer the amount of money they would like to bet with using PayNow.

 

Globally, online casino games and e-sports have surged in popularity, even as traditional sports betting has taken a hit with the cancellation of major sports events.

According to Optimove, a firm that measures online gaming trends, virtual sports, or e-sports, saw a 206 per cent increase in player activity in the first week of April compared with the first week of February.

In that same period, online poker, online casinos and online bingo witnessed a 68 per cent, a 20 per cent and a 30 per cent rise in player activity, respectively.

International Betting Integrity Association chief executive Khalid Ali told ST that market data analyst H2 Gambling Capital estimated the global regulated gambling markets at around US$446 billion (S$632 billion) in gross gambling revenue (GGR) last year, while the regulated land-based and interactive gambling in the Asian region was worth about US$162 billion in GGR.

"All of these figures are being revised daily, if not hourly, as sports around the world are suspended or postponed, and in some cases cancelled," he said. "At the time of writing, H2 forecasts an 18.4 per cent year-on-year decline in global gambling revenue to US$372 billion, below 2012 levels. The negative impact of the coronavirus outbreak forecast for 2020 in the Asian region is foreseen at 22.8 per cent."

But even if regulated avenues for gambling are closed for now, gambling addicts continue to seek outlets. While it is not clear yet how extensive problem gambling is, help groups such as Adullam Life Counselling and We Care Community Services said they expect it to get worse during the circuit breaker period. Financial and emotional stressors at home could also drive punters to gamble even more, they said.

Mr Wong Kee Soon, chairman of Adullam Life Counselling, said he expects a "tsunami wave" of cases months after the circuit breaker period ends. Problem gamblers typically do not seek help until they find themselves in debt or have their addiction discovered by family members.

We Care Community Services chairman Andrew da Roza said it is harder to keep track of gamblers in online games of chance. "The longer the lockdown, the worse the social problem will become."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2020, with the headline 'Problem gambling pushed underground'. Subscribe