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Irked gamblers cash in their chips as Russia follows through on casino ban

Many thought the shutdown of gambling halls would never happen. Casinos are now allowed only in designated, far-flung zones, leaving customers and workers cursing their luck.

July 01, 2009|Megan K. Stack

MOSCOW — The gamblers thought it was an empty threat. Politicians talked about the casinos, of course, as sure as they talked about corruption and alcoholism. It didn't mean that vice was going anywhere.

But on Tuesday night, finally and anticlimactically, the games drew to an end -- a last spin of the roulette, the final blackjack hand, one more jangle at the slots. By order of the Kremlin, gambling halls in cities throughout much of Russia edged the last die-hards to the door and turned their collective hundreds of thousands of workers into the streets.

The idea of outlawing casinos in all but a handful of far-flung, designated zones was pushed as an anti-vice measure by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin back when he was still president and Russia was still flush with oil cash. The government remained unflinching as today's deadline loomed, stolidly ignoring pleas to push back the closure in the face of collapsing oil prices and a floundering economy.

From now on, gambling will be restricted to Kaliningrad on the Baltic Sea, a zone near the cities of Krasnodar and Rostov in the south, the Altai area of southern Siberia and the Primorsky region in Russia's far east.

This week, as the impending reality of lost salaries and last calls soaked in, the gambling halls were suddenly converted from the dens of gangsters into improbable hotbeds of anti-government dissent.

"This is a vivid example of the authorities thinking they know best and imposing their will," Konstantin Kopylov, managing partner of the Golden Palace casino, griped Tuesday. "They adopt a law about an industry, and they don't bother to discuss it with us."

The Golden Palace had already nailed lumber in an X over its front door, just behind the brassy elephants that tower on pillars on either side of the roadway. By midnight, police would hit the streets to make sure all gambling had been stopped. Inside the carefully time-neutral cavern of fake gold and winking lights, Kopylov fielded calls from casino operators around Europe. They were looking to buy his equipment cheap, and he was happy to sell.

"The state unleashed a struggle against us, and this huge political pressure was brought to bear," Kopylov said. "Then the pocket State Duma [the lower house of parliament] attacked us, and everybody attacked us."

With the fall of communism, gambling surged into Russia, and why not? Everything was up for grabs; solid chunks of resources and cash were suddenly liquid and untraceable. Soon casinos became an icon of post-Soviet Russia: microcosms that displayed the casual cruelty of capitalism's whims; the apparent wildness that overlay a rigid rule set and pecking order; and, of course, the game of it all, the flash and adrenaline.

In Moscow alone, according to numbers from the Assn. for Gambling Business Development, there were 38 casinos and about 500 slot halls. The vast network of gambling fed about $2 billion in taxes a year into Russia's budget, the organization estimates. The closure leaves as many as 350,000 people jobless overnight, the association said.

The melancholy was palpable this week along the strip of casinos on Novy Arbat, a breathless ribbon of neon and beggars and slick salesmen that runs from the Moscow River to the Kremlin walls. Skateboarders hurtled through flat sheets of Russia's relentless summer sun. Hip-hop and rock poured down over the sidewalks like rain from overhead speakers.

But inside the iconic Arbat casino, the waitresses were in a sour mood.

"We work for tips," one of them snapped when a tubby man in a drooping T-shirt peeled himself away from the slot machines long enough to demand a pack of cigarettes.

"I've been giving you tips all night!" he protested. She glared. He turned and stomped back to the slots.

The waitress, a curvy blond named Irina, shrugged. "This is my last hour. Why should I kill my legs carrying things for free?"

Employees in the Arbat refused to give their last names, explaining that they'd been warned on pain of their last paycheck not to give interviews to reporters.

The waitresses could make $1,000 in tips on a very good night, they said, and they won't find that kind of money again soon -- especially since they think their work at casinos won't look good to prospective employers.

A man in a tuxedo made an announcement: The last games would start at each table. The guests were encouraged to visit a related casino -- in Romania. Sitting straight in their vests, beneath the fringed lamps, the dealers looked at one another wistfully. Women with bare shoulders and pouting mouths who'd been haunting the tables -- if they weren't prostitutes, they were dressed the part -- stubbed out their last cigarettes and slinked to the door. The gamblers hugged one another and said goodbye, cigars still dangling from their fingers.

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