There are 2 types of underground casinos:

I don’t know how or why North Koreans run illegal gambling operations. The first rule of North Korean gambling club must be that you don’t talk about North Korean gambling club. Every country on Earth, including North Korea, outlaws one or more forms of gambling. Yet there are thousands of legitimate casinos, many owned and operated by national or regional governments.

Is illegal gambling outlawed because it’s bad for you or because it competes with the government? Numerous academic studies document the downside of illegal gambling. Many underground casinos are operated by criminal organizations. You’re a criminal if you break the law, but you’re an organization if you work with others to break the law.

Uncle Fred’s weekly poker game may be illegal, but he’s probably not running an underground casino. The local sheriff may care about Fred’s weekly game only because he needs to win re-election. There are real downsides to gaming in, working for, or owning an illegal casino. Yet millions of people support the underground gambling industry every year.  What is the appeal?

1- In the United States, Not Every Underground Casino Is Illegal

As I’m not a lawyer, take this statement with a grain of salt. If you’re not sure what is illegal, check your local codes or ask an attorney. The federal definition of illegal gambling is surprising. Although state laws may differ, federal law allows up to 4 people to “run games” for money. In other words, if you live in a state that defines illegal gambling as involving 5 or more people, you may be safe. But there are other rules, too.

These are the key points of the federal law defining illegal gambling business:

  • The business violates a state or local law;
  • The business involves 5 or more people;
  • The business runs for 30 days or longer;
  • The business has a gross revenue of $2000 or more in a single day.

It makes sense that federal law chooses to ignore petty gambling. If your kids run a game for a couple of weeks and only a couple hundred dollars is exchanged, they aren’t risking federal prosecution. I gambled with my friends when I was a kid, but only occasionally. But even in states that don’t prohibit home games, if 5 people gamble regularly for a year that’s illegal. Maybe the F.B.I. won’t be knocking down your door, but you’re running an underground casino. Remember to share that at confession.

2- Underground Casinos Serve a Social Purpose

A “social purpose” is any activity that somehow benefits society as a whole. The moral or ethical implications of the social purpose may be negative or positive. A natural example of social purpose is how young stallions drive older males away from their herds. The species benefits from new genes entering the family line.

Imagine some young guy bursting into your home and taking your wife and kids. I almost feel sorry for the old stallions. Underground casinos give people who can’t gamble elsewhere a place to gamble. That includes you if you just do it for fun, and it includes problem gamblers. It also includes criminals who can’t gamble in public.

Underground casinos flourish in places known for their high moral standards. Take Utah, heartland of the Mormon Church; the state has a flourishing underground casino industry.  If people cannot gamble legally, they will gamble illegally. Every community with an underground gambling industry regulates that industry in some way. Society tolerates gambling between friends. Normally, only the predatory gambling operations draw society’s occasional retribution.

3- Why Criminal Groups Manage the Big Money Underground Casinos

In the movie Rocky, the hero Rocky Balboa asks old boxing coach Mickey why he always talks down to Rocky. Mickey tells him it’s because “you became a leg breaker”.  Rocky was a good boxer who used his talent to collect money for a loan shark.

If you decide to start your own underground casino, sooner or later you’ll loan money to players. Sooner or later one or more those players will lose that money. How will you collect? Those stories you hear about thugs taking cars, boats, and other valuables are true.  It happens. No matter how good-hearted the casino boss is outside work, at work he wants his (your) money. To build up any kind of big illegal operation you need muscle to collect from your debtors. Worse, you need protection against the criminals will would otherwise rob you.

An anonymous woman from the Netherlands shared her experiences working in underground casinos with Vice. She witnessed a lot of criminal activity. One customer was robbed as soon as he left with his winnings; other players plotted heists as they gambled. The average good guy family man won’t last long in this world. He’ll either start doing what the other criminals do, or he’ll be run out of the business.  And that’s why organized crime controls the most profitable underground casinos.

4- Underground Casinos Attract More Crime

Moral arguments against gambling aside, research shows that illegal gambling breeds more crime than legal gambling. There are several reasons why that happens. It doesn’t take a genius to see what is going on. Underground casinos are like black holes of criminal intentions.

People are less likely to feel inhibited in an underground casino. That Vice article mentions how the young woman was fired for resisting a customer’s advances. Her casino boss didn’t care about or protect her. The lack of inhibition in an underground casino is encouraged by the bosses. They create the façade of a safe environment. Their armed guards won’t come out into the street to defend you if you are robbed.

The presence of an illegal casino is a sign that “the police are not watching”. If the casino can operate with impunity then so can others. The more people who gamble at an illegal gaming establishment, the more likely some of them are active criminals. Gamblers already take risks. Criminals take even more risks, and now they are gambling in uninhibited environments.

5- Legal Gambling Does Not End Illegal Gambling

If everyone in town can just roll into the local legitimate casino, why would anyone patronize an illegal parlor? Researchers have found several reasons why illegal gambling co-exists with legal gambling. One surprising explanation is that sometimes people just think the illegal gambling is cooler.

Illegal casinos accept patrons who are turned away by legal casinos. If you lose your line of credit at the big casino downturn, your neighborhood casino may loan you money. They charge higher interest and send someone to collect. Another reason why illegal gambling continues is that local legal gambling may not meet all demand. In a state that only allows lottery games, players run their own card games. Players may still find slot machines hidden away in small businesses and old buildings.

Gambling addiction also contributes illegal gaming operations. Addicts are more likely to play at local establishments than to drive 1 or more hours to a legal casino. Wallethub found that gambling addiction runs high in states with both legal and illegal gambling. Estimates vary on what percentage of the population is prone to gambling addiction. The numbers run from about 2% to 10%. Maybe these estimates vary based on region and economic period.

6- Underground Casinos Depend on Word of Mouth Advertising

The Internet is a real game changer in the world of gambling. Make no mistake, if you want to start gambling today, you can begin wagering in less than an hour. But underground casinos still rely on word of mouth advertising. In 2008, a poker player from New York shared his story with the New York University Street Level magazine. In the article he mentioned how he waited to hear from a friend about a poker room re-opening.

This sounds like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. The game is based on a sociological theory that you are about six relationships removed from any other person in America. Theoretically, you could hand a letter to a friend and ask that it reach the President, and he’ll eventually receive it. By the same token you can ask a friend if they know where you can get in on a card game. If your friend doesn’t know, your friend has a friend. And if that friend of a friend doesn’t know, they have a friend. Just ask and you’ll find your game.

The more people who know about an underground casino the faster the word spreads about it. And because illegal gaming establishments shut down all the time people are willing to share news about new games. The underground gambling scene, just like other underground social activities, thrives on word of mouth.

7- No One Knows How Much Money Is Being Wagered

Legal gambling businesses must file reports with government regulatory agencies. In many countries those reports are a matter of public record. Economists, journalists, and lawmakers study these reports to estimate future tax revenues and shape policy.

But no one is reporting income in the illegal gambling industry. There are no tax revenues. Nor is there a central reporting agency where law enforcement collects statistics about money seized. Illegal gambling operates in a dark economy. This economy has spawned estimates that rise into hundreds of billions of dollars spent annually. And that’s just what some people believe is wagered illegally in the United States.

Economist Jay Zigorsky challenges those ballooning estimates with a thoughtful essay. He takes a recent estimate of illegal American gambling (about $150 billion) and compares it to a projection. Zigorsky’s projection is based on data from the United Kingdom.

If Zigorsky’s assumptions and calculations are correct, then illegal gambling in the United States accounts for a modest $67 billion per year. But no one really knows how much money is being wagered across the land and across the world. The UK data doesn’t include home-based card games.

How does this measure compared to other economic activity in America?

On this scale of economic activity maybe a $100 billion error in estimate doesn’t mean much.  But if you’re really curious about how much money changes hands every year, it’s a guessing game.


Despite many years of research by government agencies and academics, illegal gambling continues to be enigmatic. We can’t even agree on what is an underground casino. Does that include your dining room because you and 6 friends play poker every week?

Loopholes in the law and inconsistent enforcement make illegal gambling appealing. The pop image of a seedy, smoke-filled secret gambling parlor may be very misleading. No doubt there are many such places scattered across the globe, but the “average” underground casino probably looks like home. Outside the friendly weekly card game, illegal gambling earns its reputation for being risky and even dangerous. Your choice of venue is important. The gambling boss won’t protect you against theft, and he’ll only care about cheating that harms his reputation.

Workers don’t receive health care or other benefits. Worse, if they rebuff the guests their bosses may stigmatize them with other illegal casino owners. Everything that protects an employee in a legal business is missing from this industry. And one question is always impossible to answer: how much can you trust the guys running underground casinos to run honest games?

Even if the local gambling den is run by your good neighbor down the street, would you want to be indebted to him? Would you want your daughters to be his hostesses? Would you want your sons to learn how to gamble in that environment? Despite the larger than life sense of adventure underground gambling houses cultivate, there are safer alternatives. Keep it among your friends or play online if the nearest legal land-based casino is too far away. Some risks are not worth taking.

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