Gambling in Taiwan

Putting the words “gambling” and “Asian” or “Chinese” together immediately conjures up a scene of a small, dimly lit room with a dingy table surrounded by men huching over blocks with strange characters on them.  There is money on the table and in their hands, and they are shouting at each other in unrecognizable words, gesturing and excited.  A heavy haze of smoke permeates the room, and the door is closed, with an oily, gangster type standing beside it.  This room is located in the back of a Chinese restaurant, somewhere in Chinatown in any major western city.  And these men are fathers and controllers of powerful factions within the Asian community.

At least thats what runs through my head.  Maybe I’ve watched too many movies.

If you’ve ever been to a casino, the old stereotype of “Asians loving to gamble” does come to life.  Far removed from the old mobsters, modern day casinos are brightly lit, and it’s not only old men throwing away cash, but people from all walks of life.  It’s common to walk by blackjack tables crowded by young to middle aged Asian women banging on the table and shouting “Monkey!!  Monkey!!” (slang for any card with a value of 10).

They take their gambling seriously; if you walk into a table and make a play percieved as wrong, or lower the chances of the table winning, beware.  Besides dirty looks and angry mutterings, you may recieve an ancient Chinese curse designed to make your gonads shrivel up!

Suffice to say, there is some truth in the fact that Asians love to gamble.

Since being in Taiwan, I’ve discovered that gambling is actually illegal here.  Besides the national sponsored lotteries, private establishments are not allowed to change cash over games of chance.  Knowing this, I was pretty surprised when walking around town, I saw a number of buildings that looked like casinos.

Of course, the in-built gene of gambling in a lot of Taiwanese people has figured out a way to overcome the law!  Here’s how they work.

The prospective gambler enters, buys tokens with cash and plays his/her game of choice.  The winnings are given in tokens that can be used to play other games.  The winner cannot exchange their tokens for actual cash, just gifts or trinkets, so the house isn’t paying out real money for games, just merchandise.  If the tokens keep piling up, the winner can keep the tokens for the next time he/she wants to return and play again.  Simple, clean and legal.

Then it gets a bit murkier.

After the winner leaves the casino, he/she MIGHT make a stop at a nearby alleyway.  There MIGHT be someone there who they can approach with their tokens.  This person, MAY exchange the tokens for cold, hard cash.  The parties then separate and go their merry ways.  Win – win.  The casino stays clean, and the player walks away with a little extra cash.  No fuss, no muss, and everyone can claim innocence.  The casino didn’t hand over cash, and the winner simply sold his winnings to a “collector” of tokens.

Never having experienced this, I can’t really verify it 100%, but I’ve heard stories from enough people that it seems to have a general feeling of truth to it.  Maybe when my Mandarin is better, I’ll give it a shot to see.

I’d imagine that most of these places are run by gangs, and although the situation is very peaceful in Taiwan (gangs and authorities have a sort of unspoken balance to keep the public peace), I’d feel very, very uneasy taking money from the underground.  I know…I know…Las Vegas was built by mobsters, but at least it’s legally sanctioned.  There is no way, this type of gambling is.

For example, what if you hit a major jackpot??  Sure you’d get paid, but you’d also come to the attention of the people who own the establishment.  No matter what country you are in, unless you’re a big player, being on the radar of a gang is generally as desireable as contracting herpes.

Or maybe you just wouldn’t find that stranger in the alley to convert your winnings.

Or maybe, after converting your winnings you’d be robbed a few streets down.

No thanks, I’ll stick to small, house poker games to scratch my gambling itch, thank you very much.

So while I’m hesitant to go to these places, no doubt they are very popular with the locals.  I’m sure the police know what’s going on, but in the spirit of keeping the peace, they turn a blind eye unless there be major disruptions.

So while gambling is illegal, these type of casinos do exist, and the law is happily circumvented.

In terms of legalizing gambling, there has been talk about opening up full scale, legit casinos on Taiwan’s offshore islands as well as right in New Taipei city.  A referendum in Penghu (2009) shot the idea down, but the people of Matsu (2012) voted to have a casino there.  Development companies want to get in, but Taiwan’s government has been slow to issues licenses and permits.  Taiwanese are still uncomfortable with the idea of legalizing gambling, although it’s already been legalized on the offshore islands, just not the mainland.

So while Taiwan’s national compass inexorably shifts to fully supporting gambling, the development companies will have to wait, as will legal casinos, but if you have the cahones for it, you can have a seat next to a local and win some tokens at your friendly, neighbourhood, gang-run games center.  Happy gambling!

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