BANGKOK, Thailand — Two boys squat in the thin shade of a utility pole on a scorching Bangkok sidewalk, peering at the license plates on an oncoming car. The last number is odd, a five. To the yelp of victory, money changes hands.
In a nearby cafe, three men sit silently over a round of sweating beers and Mekhong whiskey. They watch the gecko lizards gripping the walls and ceiling, waiting for one to begin its staccato chatter. The bets are down: four chirps, six or seven.
Anything that moves, fights or bears numbers will draw a wager in Southeast Asia. Gambling is pandemic.
It's even odds that someone in the house is playing the lottery, legal or illegal, and only a slightly longer bet that your neighbor is looking for action in mahjongg, cards or coin flipping.
Everybody's in Game
Police gambling squads say the biggest players are the overseas Chinese, at least in the level of stakes. But nearly everybody's in the game, from the Filipino fighting cock enthusiast to the Thais who plunge on fighting fish.
There's a science to it, of course, but luck and superstition play as big a role. Take the lottery. While Americans bet with head and heart on the Super Bowl, Asians concentrate on finding that mystical lottery number.
"Have you ever noticed Singapore drivers craning their necks as they approach an overturned auto in a road wreck?" asked Teo Hong Guan, superintendent for specialized crimes at the city-state's Central Intelligence Division. "They're looking at the plates. That number is very propitious."
In Thailand a few years back, an up-country village woman was said to have laid a stone egg. Long lines formed at the door to her hut. According to reports at the time, the visitors paid their respects to the lady with the magical powers and then asked bluntly: "What's the (lottery) number?"
Races in Malaysia
The ponies are equally irresistible. Picture this scene on the outskirts of the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. It's a late spring day and the lightning of a tropical storm crackles overhead. Voices rise. Three minutes to post time, fourth race.
Ten thousand pairs of eyes stare at the changing odds on the tote board. "I rather fancy No. 6," confides Eric Wong, a legal clerk taking the afternoon off from work to "take a flutter" at the Selangor Betting Center. Wong slips five bills to a runner, who dodges across a floor covered with beer cans, chicken bones and shredded tickets to get the bet down.
They're off! Wong fidgets, looks up and joins a chorus of shouts, drowning out the thunder, as the horses hit the home stretch. Ten thousand faces are fixed on the finish line. It's No. 6, by a nose.
In Kuala Lumpur, 200 monitors flash the opening odds for the fifth race. At Ipoh, a Malaysian city several hundred miles to the north, No. 6 is led to the winner's circle. In Singapore and the Malaysian resort of Penang, thousands of gamblers, like Wong in Kuala Lumpur, crack their programs for another round of televised, off-track betting sponsored by the Malayan Racing Assn. It's the next best thing to being there on the four-city thoroughbred circuit.
Many Asians prefer betting on the blood sports. In the Philippines, one of President Corazon Aquino's brothers raises prize-fighting cocks. And in the poorest barrio, old men walk along the roadsides stroking the neck feathers of their long-legged champions. Cockpits, the cup-shaped arenas, dot the countryside.
In the former British territories, Singapore and Malaysia, blood sports are outlawed, but you can lay a few illegal bucks on bowling or any other athletic contest.
'Noise Alone a Thrill'
The fast action favored by the ethnic Chinese comes in games where the bettor is a participant. In mahjongg, for instance, a domino-like game in which tiles are constantly stacked and shuffled by the players. "The noise alone will give you a thrill," said Law Ah Kaw, head of the Singapore police gambling suppression branch.
Well-heeled gamblers will frequent the legal casinos in Malaysia, Macao and the Philippines, which feature roulette and other Las Vegas-style games. In Bangkok, the high rollers favor baccarat, played in illegal gambling dens. "Millions of baht are wagered in one of these baccarat games," noted Police Inspector Vichai Charoenpong. One million baht is the equivalent of about $40,000.
The average gambling addict, playing for modest stakes, often sticks to card games like blackjack--usually with Western cards--such as the Thai pock deng , or to high-low dice games. "But it can be as simple as picking up a handful of toothpicks at a restaurant. Odd or even," the inspector said.
Police attention is centered on the illegal dens and bookmakers. The idea is to control the problem, for the authorities admit that there is no hope of eliminating it.
"There have been cases where dens started operations just two hours after a police raid," said Law of the Singapore suppression branch. "Gamblers are incorrigible."