A close look at Tripoli’s underground football gambling

A close look at Tripoli’s underground football gambling
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Published March 13th, 2017 - 20:25 GMT via SyndiGate.info

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Inside a dimly lit, ground-floor office with a faded blank sign, on the edge of Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli, a man who identified himself as Abu Samer runs an illegal gambling ring for betting on international football fixtures. The shop bustled on an otherwise quiet street, with cars and bicycles pulling up and groups of young men engaged in animated discussions, predominantly about football.

Although they are illegal in Lebanon, Abu Samer said betting shops like his are widespread both in Tripoli and across Lebanon, and that he has been running his shop under the direction of a “big boss” for almost two years.

He explained the organizational structure – a wealthy manager at the top and several people to make contacts, collect money and bring more people into the racket. Below them are people like Abu Samer who run the shops dealing with the gamblers face to face or via WhatsApp and settling payments. “[The boss] is the central bank of the game and I’m an employee. Whatever happens I get 10 percent,” he told The Daily Star.

“You could say in plain Arabic, that the money of [the] poor in Tripoli is with these people [who run the several gambling shops in the city],” Abu Samer said. “The [different shops] are in competition but at the end of the day, [the owners] smoke shisha and have drinks with each other.”

The shops give odds for every fixture based on international online gambling websites like Bet365 or Betshop, and they offer bets on everything from the final score of a match to the winner, the loser or technicalities such as the number of red or yellow cards.

“There are endless games that people play,” one gambler told The Daily Star anonymously. “There’s the English Premier League ... the French or Spanish leagues [all of which are] on Saturday.” He added that they also bet on both major and obscure leagues from France, North America, China, Japan and Korea and elsewhere, from morning to night. “People play all day, they really don’t stop,” he said.

Abu Samer showed The Daily Star some of the screenshots of bets gamblers wanted to place. As well as major international fixtures such as with Barcelona, there were also bets on Israeli football leagues.

Taking a sip of sweet Arabic coffee, Abu Samer told The Daily Star that while people could technically play online, many choose not to for convenience or to avoid money being seized by the police.

“There’s a real company online and it’s legal in most places, but not in Lebanon. You can go now and get an online [debit] card and play, but people go through me because I give the money straight away,” he said.

Abu Samer said some days were busier than others and the amount he handles can change significantly. “Some days I have one person playing, some days it’s more than 20. Some days they play for LL1 million [$660] a day, sometimes LL10 million. There are people who bet all their winnings again as soon as they win,” he said, scrolling through lists of screenshots being sent through chat messages that showed bets his customers were placing through him.

The bookmaker said the allure of high winnings is not the only thing that draws people in, and that many of his customers are close friends and family. “It’s like you tell your friend, ‘Hey I’m opening a hotdog store, come pass by,’ and they love hotdogs so they come.”

Abu Samer also said that boredom made people return. “Most Lebanese have no more than three good things in their life – gambling, women and alcohol. If you’ve got even $200 extra a month, you’ll spend it on one of those things. There are poker tables here in many places, roulette tables and slot machines too, but I think football is the lesser evil.”

The Daily Star talked to numerous customers visiting Abu Samer, most of whom were close friends of the bookie. Many said they were there for the social interaction more than the money, and as the evening progressed, a crowd formed on the street corner to talk loudly about the games.

One of the young men talked about his experience with gambling.

“Everybody I know [gambles]. There isn’t one person who doesn’t. The difference is that some play LL10,000 ... a day while others play with LL300,000, it depends on your budget. Some people play smart and really study it while others get drunk and just hedge their bets on a team because they love it. I play strategically,” the man, who identified himself as Nimr, said.

Abu Samer said he doesn’t worry about the authorities as, he claimed, they “like” him. And despite the illegality meaning he can’t turn to the police if someone doesn’t pay, he said he never has problems and that there is honor among gamblers.

“Everyone pays,” he said with a laugh, gesturing toward a pistol in his lap. “If they don’t, I’ll go up to their house and get the money.”

But paradoxically for a bookmaker with no apparent intention to quit, he said he doesn’t agree with gambling. “I would honestly be happy if they stopped this, for the sake of the poor people. No gambling is good. I’m even supportive of closing Casino du Liban,” he said. “I don’t gamble, maybe once or twice a month to have fun, but I see how bad it is.”

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