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Gambling in Thailand — Underground Thai Lottery

Gambling in Thailand is for the most part illegal. Outside of the official Thai lottery, gambling on the outcome of events such as Muay Thai, football and cock-fighting are all illegal. However illegal gambling is rife in the Kingdom. In this post we will take a look at the underground lottery which is probably the biggest money spinner in the illegal betting market and look at a possible solution to illegal gambling in Thailand.

The Underground Lottery in Thailand

The underground Thai lottery, หวยใต้ดิน(huay tai din) in Thai, continues to thrive pretty much the same as it always has since its start back in 1916 when gambling in Thailand was banned by Rama VI. This is despite some attempts by various governments to close it down or in one case legalise it.

It is estimated that more than 50% of Thais play the underground lottery with an annual turnover of some 100 Billion Baht.

But what is the underground Thai lottery, why do Thais love to play it and who benefits from this form of gambling in Thailand?

How the Underground Thai Lottery Works

The underground Thai lottery is based on the numbers generated in the official Thai lottery that is usually drawn two times each month. But while the people playing the official lottery buy a paper based lottery ticket, gamblers in the Huay Tai Din supply combinations of two and three digit numbers to the local “bookmaker,” on a hand written betting slip. Slips are then collected by “agents” and taken to the local illegal lottery organiser.

The idea is that the player tries to accurately predict the last two or three digits of the government lottery winning numbers. Staking a small amount(often 20 Baht) at fixed odds, 50/1 for two numbers and 500/1 for three numbers. There are various subtle additions that help make the underground lottery attractive besides low stakes, including prizes for one number up and one number down from the official winning number as well as predicting the last three numbers in any order.

You can also gamble before you pay!

Why do Thais Love to Play the Underground Lottery?

To even remotely grasp an understanding why the Thais love to play the underground lottery, aside from its easy access and low stakes/high return, you probably need to delve a little into Thai history and Thai culture to find some sort of answer.

Research suggests that the Thai lottery “huay” became popular when the Chinese started to have influence in Thailand, although it was banned, along with all forms of gambling in 1916, by King Rama VI ,because the king believed it was affecting the morals of Thais.

Despite the ban the lottery continued secretly and became the forerunner of today’s underground Thai lottery. When Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932 government reforms included introducing the first official government lottery. However when the government lottery was introduced the illegal lottery simply continued and became a part of everyday life in Thailand. Running unofficially in parallel with the government lottery.

Who Benefits from the Underground Thai Lottery?

It is perhaps easier to answer this question by highlighting who does not benefit from the Thai underground lottery and its estimated 100 Billion Baht turnover. Since clearly the government exchequer as well as the charities that receive money from the official lottery are both casualties of this illegal form of gambling in Thailand.

Sadly however, as is common with most forms of gambling, it seems that the punters are the biggest losers, with many poor families gambling a good proportion of their hard-earned monthly income in the hope of making it rich. Being able to bet on credit just makes this problem even greater.

So who are the winners? Well the local agent is paid a percentage of what they collect and around 60-70% of the cash collected is paid out in prizes. So someone or some people are making a lot of money, based on the estimate of national spending on the underground lottery, this must be in the region of 30 Billion Baht a year.

Back in 2011 a lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s economics faculty, was quoted in the Bangkok Post saying that “underground lottery(s) are tools used by politicians to build reciprocal relationships with supporters.” He further added “This is because underground lottery agents need protection from those in power, including politicians and law enforcement officers.”

In the same year gambling in Thailand was estimated to be worth 420 billion Baht annually of which around 20% was spent on the official Thai lottery.

Legalising Gambling in Thailand

Given the well documented problems, like debt and poverty, associated with gambling in Thailand perhaps the Thai government should look to legalise some forms of gambling including the underground lottery?

Legalised gambling is taxed in most countries that allow it, it stands to reason that the Thai economy could be a beneficiary if gambling in Thailand was legalised. In the UK, for example, which has a similar sized population to Thailand, this is the case, where 0.6% of GDP is sourced from taxation related to gambling.

In the UK, punters in the 55 poorest boroughs gambled an estimated £13.2 billion in 2013. That’s a quarter of the UK population(it’s poorest citizens) spending an estimated 660 Billion Baht gambling in legal betting shops. Source The Guardian

Legalising gambling in Thailand would also remove a huge underground industry that is linked to corruption just like it did in the UK back in the early 1960’s when regulated betting shops and casino’s were introduced.

If a similar move was made in Thailand then something like the current underground Thai lottery could still be played in a legal form and all Thais could benefit from the extra revenue generated, not just the few that run the illegal betting syndicates. It might also help some of the more vulnerable citizens escape from the monthly debt cycle and the poverty trap it snares them into.

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