ISTANBUL, Turkey — Casinos and slot machines designed to draw foreign tourists have instead lured Turks, some of whom risk thousands of dollars each night.
Tourism ranks third behind textiles and food exports as Turkey's main source of much-needed foreign currency.
Casinos were legalized in 1983, but gambling outside of these establishments remains prohibited.
Slot machines in casinos at luxury hotels or special holiday villages draw increasing numbers of Turks. And police frequently raid houses where locals play card games like cooncan, bezique, bridge or poker for fun or small stakes. The Turkish penal code provides for jail terms of up to six months for illegal gambling.
In Istanbul and other big cities and coastal towns, the last stop on an evening out for wealthy Turks is often a casino.
Turks may legally play slot machines but are forbidden to play roulette and blackjack, unless they live abroad and earn more than $25,000 a year.
"More than 90% of the people visiting the slot machine area of our casino are Turkish people from all income groups," said Alexander Tucek, manager of the Etap Altinel casino, which is jointly run by Austrian and Turkish partners.
Tucek, an Austrian, sees no substantial difference between Turks and other nationalities in their enthusiasm for gambling.
But Atilla Bak, an ex-croupier who has also worked abroad, disagrees. "Turks are as ambitious gamblers as Japanese and Americans, who top the gamblers list in the world," he said.
Tucek's is one of only two casinos that also have a live game section, which is off-limits to locals.
Turkey has 21 casinos with more than 1,700 slot machines, official reports say. Most of the casinos are run jointly with foreign companies, which provide the machines and technical know-how.
Only large five-star hotels and first-class holiday villages accommodating at least 500 people are permitted to set up casinos.
The slots take from 400 to 700 lire, the equivalent of 60 cents to $1. Many people have been reported losing significant amounts of money.
Turks pumped 85 billion lire, about $125 million, into slot machines last year, overtaking the national lottery, horse racing and the soccer pools as the favorite form of gambling.
About 65% of the casinos' winnings is collected by the state in taxes.