Winners & Losers: High Risk Gambling

Spend time in Bangkok and you can have plenty of kicks and find plenty of trouble, but one thing you can’t do there is gamble with a modicum of legality.

For that you need to visit a town called Poipet. It is situated in neighboring Cambodia, a three-and-a-half hour drive from Bangkok.

Poipet border
Image: Thanate Tan/Flickr

The place is an easy locale for gambling and, whether you like it or not, mingling with an unsavory element.

Maybe there is good reason why Cambodians are not allowed to gamble there, baht is the currency of choice and there’s no problem if you like to speak Thai.

Worlds away from Vegas or Macau, it’s a gaming town where hotel lobbies reek of smoke, criminals are thick, morals feel slim and if you want to gamble, you are doing it at your own risk – or at more risk than would be the norm.

A friend went there, intending to pull off an advantage play at baccarat. The casino got wise to what he and his crew were doing and allegedly rigged the game.

Playing on a marker, the team-members realized what was happening, shut down their play and planned a hasty retreat.

It didn’t go that way.

Casino bosses demanded that the markers be paid off with interest — immediately.

Upon hearing that funds were not in hand, they put the group into what my friend describes as “water jail.” They had to stay in a pool of water, up to their ribs, being watched over by guards.

The team ultimately got out. But, depending on who you believe, it was either through a daring escape into the Cambodian night or via a pal who came through with the necessary cash.

Either way, it illustrates how gambling is a tough way to make an easy living.

But it could have been worse.

In 2022, the Grand Diamond Casino there caught on fire. Officially, 27 gamblers died in the blaze. However, it’s also been claimed that more than 100 perished.

But you’d expect things to be unclear. The casino was owned by a fugitive politician from Thailand. Found guilty of land fraud, he had been sentenced in absentia. Yet the man somehow owed a firetrap of a casino.

That’s the gambling biz in Poipet, a place that feels not quite in Thailand and not quite in Cambodia.

You cross the Thai border and walk into the casino district. Somewhere along the line, you pay $30 to enter the territory.

Vice describes the town as grimy and crime-riddled with a weird, red dust floating through the air.

Poipet dusty roads
Image: Vineeth/Flickr

Inside the casinos, baccarat is the game that rules, with one table after the other, loaded with grim-faced Thai gamblers, satisfying needs for action. Slot machines line walls and there are plenty of blackjack tables.

Just don’t count on a friendly gambling commission that will settle disputes. You also won’t find the same rich variety that you might be used to from real money slots online.

One unique feature of Poipet casinos: so-called “Internet tables.”

You gamble under klieg lights, high resolution cameras capture the action and homebound gamblers in Thailand participate by wagering on the outcomes of various games.

It sounds entertaining in its own weird, offbeat way.

I’ve yet to visit Poipet, but I’m planning to be in Bangkok over the next few months.

Will I catch a ride to the border, cross over and try my luck in Poipet? I think so. But I will leave any advantage-playing skills at the door.

A stint in water jail sounds like a bad way to end a casino visit.

Michael Kaplan
Gambling Author and Journalist

Michael Kaplan is a journalist based in New York City joined Techopedia in November 2023. He is the author of five books ("The Advantage Players" comes out in 2024) and has worked for publications that include Wired, GQ and the New York Post. He has written extensively on technology, gambling and business — with a particular interest in spots where all three intersect. His article on Kelly "Baccarat Machine" Sun and Phil Ivey is in development as a feature film.