NEWS

Greeks spend billions on gaming, and most have a holiday flutter

Greece, the home of gambling. Eight official games, five lotteries, seven casinos and 20,000 legal and illegal card clubs, an unknown number of illegal betting shops and hundreds of websites tempt us to try our luck. And judging by the immense sums spent every year on games of chance, Greeks yield to the temptation. Legal gambling alone brings in at least 3.5 trillion euros a year, but nobody knows the figures for illegal gambling. On Christmas Eve, the betting shops are packed with thousands of people giving themselves the chance of making easy money and a supposedly better life. Most of them are interested in two games run by the Greek soccer pools organization OPAP, which are widely advertised on television, and also in the traditional New Year’s lottery. «Christmas is the feast of gambling,» Giorgos Fountas, former president of the federation of Pro-Po soccer pools agents, told Kathimerini. «Business increases about 100 percent. And at this time, everyone puts extra money on. Gambling in the Christmas holidays has become a custom in Greece.» For OPAP and its agents, every day is a holiday. Greeks spent about 1.8 billion euros last year on OPAP’s game. In the first six months of 2002, they spent 1.3 billion euros on the part-state, part-privately run Stoichima game alone. Add to that 500 million a year for lottery tickets, and the picture is clear: More than 2 billion euros from family budgets went on official games and lotteries in 2002. OPAP President Constantinos Koskinas attributes the success of his organization’s games to their prestige and reliability. «People trust them,» he told Kathimerini, «because they know the rules are kept. Our games are easy and enjoyable. And any money that doesn’t go to winners goes to public funds, sport and culture.» According to a extensive survey conducted by OPAP recently and currently being processed, «these games don’t create dependency like other forms of gambling.» Illegal gambling is seen as an enemy of OPAP: «We view the matter very seriously. We are not a prosecutorial body, but we try to win people over gently from illegal gambling, and gain a share of that market.» But the seven casinos in Greece are after OPAP’s customers, and as their representatives told Kathimerini, they are gaining ground and money. Every year, about 1.8 billion euros are spent on blackjack, roulette and poker machines. On shiny tables, under bright lights, without any sense of time – since casinos never have clocks on display – people gamble away their live’s savings and hopes. Tragic stories are sometimes associated with casinos: suicides, families destroyed overnight, and businesses sold to cover gambling debts. Around the casinos, a whole industry of illegal activities revolves, where the main role is played by loan sharks, who always manage to be in the right place at the right time. Games of chance, lotteries and casinos are all above board. But alongside legal gambling the illegal variety thrives, from basements in downtown Omonia to the Internet. The State has made attempts to clamp down on it, but they have been few and uncoordinated. The real game is far away, often in other countries, where many of the illegal offices are based. People in the know estimate that the turnover from illegal gambling far exceeds that from legal gambling.