Sun, Mar 09, 2003 - Page 17 News List

Facing up to a gambling problem

Taiwan loves gambling, but it's illegal. As more casinos are built in the region and online betting becomes more popular, this status quo is looking increasingly tenuous

By Jules Quartly  /  STAFF REPORTER

A stallholder on Linsen North Road serves up sausages with the bowl and dice he uses to take bets from customers in the foreground.

PHOTO: JULES QUARTLY, TAIPEI TIMES

Jason scooted over to the tourists drinking coffee in the small, coastal town of Daxi in Ilan County and

excitedly told them about himself. He said he wasn't sure whether he was 10- or 11-years-old, but he was proud of having recently made NT$8,000 from playing poker.

Like other gamblers, perhaps Jason was stretching the truth, but the small-town vignette shows how entrenched betting is in Taiwan.

From the millions who play lotto every week, to the pigeon racers who put money on their birds, betting is rampant.

But it is illegal. The Criminal Code, promulgated in 1935, prohibits public

gambling and providing a place for gamblers to assemble for profit. Penalties are fines from NT$1,000 to NT$9,000 and three years in prison. A "temporary amusement" clause, however, allows families to spend Chinese New Year playing mahjong all day, or earn a pot playing cards. But they must play for toothpicks in bars or teahouses, and a private house becomes public if the game is big enough.

Recently, virtual gambling has been exercising the minds of the authorities after a British online betting company chief and his financial adviser went one step too far two weeks ago by openly advertising their services.

Sportingbet Asia finance director Charles Moore said he expected just a few journalists to turn up at a spa hotel in Sanhsia, Taipei County, for the planned press conference. Instead, there was a ring of around 20 TV cameras and arc lights trained on the bemused duo when they stepped up to speak.

"We were overwhelmed by the media interest," Moore said. "We have customers in over 150 different countries and Taiwan is just another of those countries. In fact our customer base in Taiwan of less than 500 is very small compared to customers world wide of over 750,000."

Minister of the Interior Yu Cheng-hsien (余政憲) was reported to have been grim-faced when asked for his reaction and said the government would be clamping down.

True to his word, the next day the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) raided Sportingbet's two local agents, Shijiwei Advertising Company in Taichung and Sports 101 in Taipei. They hauled away boxes of files and information stored on computers -- including a partial client list -- and said the company or its agents may have broken the law because bets took place in Taiwan.

Then, on Thursday, the chief of the CIB's Internet crime squad Eric Lee (李相臣) announced it would be referring for possible prosecution around 300 of Sportingbet's local customers, and the company's local agents for soliciting gaming action.

Sportingbet founder Mark Blandford said he had been confident his company had not infringed local laws since it was licensed in Britain and the clients' accounts were in London and "this is where the [betting] transaction took place."

"I take this as vindication of Sportingbet's claim that it was not conducting illegal gambling in Taiwan," Blandford said. "The fact that they are claiming to have customer data is purely a scare tactic to potential Taiwanese customers."

Lee Mau-sheng (李茂生), professor of law at National Taiwan University, said he had been surprised by the CIB's action, which referred the highest number of people ever for prosecution at one time.

"It's understandable that to protect the nation's fragile economy and prevent foreign syndicates from stretching their tentacles into Taiwan that the government has clamped down," Lee said.

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