The casino: Inside Kenya’s gambling dens

Friday, March 13th, 2020 17:00 | By

Betting has been around for centuries, but it is the adverse effects that come with its addiction that have become a huge concern. HARRIET JAMES talks to people in the casino business to find out exactly what goes on in there

On the evening of January 6, this year, a 40-year-old man committed suicide by jumping off a balcony at Adlife Plaza in Kilimani, Nairobi, allegedly after losing Sh15 million at a casino.

The police identified him as Richard Wangai and said he had made his way into the building at around 4pm and remained at the premises until 5pm when he plunged four floors to an instant death.

Although his reason to take his own life was not immediately identified, earlier reports indicated he took the decision following his big losses at the casino.

Frank Otieno has been a security officer in one of the casinos in Nairobi city centre for six years now.

As much as this is a job for him, he has watched people come in and walk out devastated, dreams shattered, with some committing suicide after losing their money in gambling.

“Every time I see someone getting in I feel sad. I’ve seen people kill themselves because they’ve lost. Recently, a young man placed a bet of Sh50 million lost it all and he committed suicide because of the depression and shame,” he tells Spice.

The rise of sports betting and casino gambling has gained popularity in recent years and not just in Kenya, but all over Africa.

Research by a Dublin-based, world-leading market research store, Research and Markets, indicates by 2022 the global gambling market could go up to $635 billion (Sh65 trillion).

A rapid survey by a GeoPoll in 2019 found out that Nairobi is the biggest gambling destination in Kenya and houses18 gambling facilities, 908 video poker as well as128 table games. There are 30 licensed casinos in Kenya, most of which are located in major cities.

Reality check

While casino gambling and sports betting are all seen as one and the same, the two are quite different. In casino gambling, one must visit the location in order to access the service.

This, in most instances, gives the player a chance to identify the service the casino is offering based on spending power and personality.

However, some companies have recently ventured into online or digital casino services. 

“Casino gambling is more regulated in that one is able to check whether the player is underage or not.

The legal age of a player is 18 years and one will not be permitted to enter in and play if they are below the age,” explains Millionaires Casino regional operations manager Atilla Torok, who has been in the industry for the past 27 years.

The casino reopened at the Two Rivers Mall in Nairobi in August last year, after six years of closure following the September 2013 terror attack at the Westgate Mall.

Online gambling is also easily accessible as opposed to casino gambling, since  majority of the population has a mobile phone and can download the applications or betting sites.

Because of this, it’s impossible to regulate underage participants in online gambling or betting, and people with less income can play too.

For outfits such as Millionaires Casino, which is keen on checking their client’s state, it has a guest relation’s desk that checks out the age as well as the spending power of the client.

“We check also whether the guest has spent a lot of time gambling and the amount of money they have spent. If it’s beyond their spending power, we take the client aside and counsel them to find the reasons to why they have exceeded their limit.

In addition, as a casino, we not only focus on gambling, but entertainment as well as great cuisines where the client can spend their time enjoying other activities,” notes Atilla.

Risk taking

For him, the fact that the player is able to come to the casino makes them able to monitor the level of risk-taking that a gambler is exposed to.

“The time too that you can spend in a location is limited because you have other things, which you can take care of in life. That’s quite a handy way of creating adrenalin, but that’s the difference between the two,” he adds.

There is also a difference when it comes to who participates in both. While online gamblers tend to be young, low income and mostly male participants, casino gamblers are usually well-to-do people with liquid cash to splurge.

Online gamblers bet mostly on sports, especially football, which is their favourite sport according to the Geopoll survey findings.

In addition, the research indicated that majority of the gamblers spend around $50 (Sh5,000) monthly on betting with the formal gambling industry generating $28.3 million (Sh2.8 billion) in taxes in 2015.

This made it the third-highest earner in the continent after Nigeria and South Africa.

Kenyan gambling laws were created in 1966 when the Betting Lotteries and Gaming Act was introduced.

The laws further established the Betting Control and Licensing Board (BCLB), which is charged with issuing licenses, enforcing gambling regulations in all sectors and auditing gambling agencies.

In 2019, however, tensions were high between the sports betting operators and the Kenyan government.

The government accused the gambling operators of failing to comply with the increase in taxes since it was recorded that they had high returns.

It is said that they had only applied the tax to gamblers winning and this is why the government officials accused the operators of avoiding taxes.

Atilla says: “The government is not expert in gambling, but they are looking at the interests of the country. Gambling is just one sector that they need to regulate.

The BCLB monitors what is happening and am sure they create good reports for which is probably the base of their decisions.

What has happened recently has been carried out after research and with a good understanding on what requires to be done in the gaming industry. Although I believe that the overtaxing bit was done with a wrong understanding.”

He says overtaxing is not a way of creating a good environment for the business.

“Being new, we want to ensure we are transparent and we want the regulators to come here any time they want to ask any questions and look at any figures they wish to do, so that they have a good understanding of what’s happening in the industry and what is the right level of taxation and also allow the industry to grow,” adds Atilla.

The addiction

Like in many other countries, the most popular table games are roulette and blackjack in Kenya.

Players also play Texas hold’em poker and other types of casino poker variations such as slots. Gambling, if not regulated, can be dangerously addictive.

According to Vincent Ashimolowa, a security officer in one of casinos in Nairobi, he has been around for long enough to watch many people put their earthly fortunes on the line and losing them in a flash; the consequences of their addiction.

“Ni kama ina kashetani; ukianza hutawacha (It’s like there is a demon behind it; when you are hooked up it’s hard to quit). Most of the times people don’t gain, but lose. You find people working in big companies addicted to this game. 

Some who don’t even have jobs camp over here and just beg for cash to gamble. Many have lost their jobs and families because of this addiction.

There are people who sleep in Uhuru Park because they’ve lost possessions such as houses and cars,” he says.

Since the games are computerised, there are theories that most casino owners control the amount of cash that the players earn. 

The rent of most of the buildings in the city centre costs an arm and a leg, adding to the salaries, water and electricity bills, among other expenditures, allegedly pushes the owners to look for a way to gain this cash fast. 

Some casinos accept cash-only while in others, one can give title deeds or log books as down payment for them to play.

This has resulted in the rise of shylocks in casinos, who assist players pawn their stuff in exchange for cash to gamble.

“No counselling is given and once you choose to do this, you are on your own. There are those who go to the BCLB to ban them from gambling because they want to quit and a notice is sent to all the gambling dens to ban them. Gambling is never set for them to win,” says Vincent.

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