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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wanna Make a Bet?




In the center of London just off Old Street, the 6:40 race at Catford Greyhound Stadium is unfolding on a screen as a young woman gives rapid-fire commentary in a foreign language. As she speaks into the microphone, she keeps an eye on seven other screens for the races from Kempton, Goodwood and Dartford. A few thousand miles to her right, Moscow punters are reaping in their winnings or grinding their teeth in despair as the race comes to an end.


Hidden in Soviet times, gambling has come above ground and is beginning to boom in Moscow.


The taboo thrill of a high-stakes bet is nothing new to Russian culture. Dostoevsky, consumed by gambling fever, bankrupted himself. German in Pushkin's story "The Queen of Spades" went insane over cards. Today, one customer at Metelitsa bookmakers is so gripped by gambling he finds himself betting on which bird will fly off first from the pavement or who can spit the farthest.


"Russian people like to take risks," said Konstantin Bachkala, director of Premier Telesports PLC in Moscow, which plans to open 250 betting points in the city next month. "They invented Russian roulette didn't they? ... And then there's the GKOs [state treasury bills]."


But some argue that Russian gamblers are far from the romantic figures of 19th-century literature.


"The Russians are very shrewd, they think long and hard before handing out money. ... For the British it's entertainment, for the Russians it's business," said David, an employee at Metelitsa who declined to give his last name.


And they're especially careful about their winnings. "They won't pick it up tomorrow they'll pick it up today," David said. "They don't trust anything or anybody."


In Soviet times, despite never being actually outlawed, the only place sports gamblers could bet with the approval of the authorities was on the races at the Moscow Hippodrome.


Billiard halls were the place for private bets. One old punter fondly recalls the days when people from all over the Soviet Union would come to one such hall in Gorky Park. With no organized system, people had to trust each other. After two people had agreed on a bet, they would go their separate ways and meet up a month or so later after the match to pay up or receive their winnings.


Stas, a former hockey player and longtime punter, waxes nostalgic about 100-ruble bets at CSKA-Spartak matches."A hundred rubles. It was a lot of money then, a month's wages," Stas said.


Today things are a bit simpler, with a number of bookmaking companies offering bets on a range of Western and Russian sports from horse racing to tennis to soccer to American football.


At the bottom of the scale are the bookmaker kiosks, which, usually located in the foyers of somewhat dilapidated cinemas, have a musty feel not unlike British bookies in the '70s. But unlike the latter, they are just a hole in the wall with no seats and no free pens to use or steal.


Although the kiosks are the most common bookmaking places, Metelitsa, Ampir and the Horse and Hound offer a more lavish site to lose money, along with live broadcasts of sporting events.


Metelitsa bookmakers, next door to the plush casino of the same name on Novy Arbat, has the best television facilities with live dog and horse racing and access to Sky Sports, which shows Scottish and English soccer and some American sports - including the Super Bowl on Jan. 30.


The Horse and Hound at Taganskaya focuses on track racing. It has the biggest screens to watch the action and attracts a regular expatriate crowd.


Ampir has the best atmosphere of the three. A regular crowd fills its main room on weeknights, and everyone seems to know each other. It's a bit like a slightly gone-to-seed pub in South London with a lot of swearing and pot bellies.


Then again, sometimes it's more like bingo night, with heavy betting on a lottery draw beamed live from England every three minutes. Punters line up to put money on whether the last digit will be higher or lower in the next draw. In the corner a young man is looking increasingly puzzled after every draw as he searches for patterns in the piece of paper he has filled with every number drawn that night.


Such scenes could be played out all over Moscow once Premier Telesports sets up Moscow Tote in mid-February. Moscow Tote points - which may include bars such as John Bull and Sixteen Tons - will take bets on horse races from England, South Africa and Australia.


Totes work in a completely different way from bookies. Instead of punters betting against the bookmakers, they bet against themselves. All the money put on one race goes into a pool. Thirty percent is kept by the organizers, and the rest is divided among the winners.


Horse racing is just the beginning with soccer matches expected by spring and more sports later.


"Tote has everything. There'll be cockroach races soon," Batchkala said.


Meanwhile, the post-perestroika Russian way of gambling continues to thrive.


In the building of the Moskva Movie Theater, a steady stream of men - each of them clutching a copy of Sport Express newspaper - cluster around the Favorit kiosk window asking for the results from yesterday's game and the daily bet list. The clients range from besuited Parliament Light smokers to noxious Prima puffers. This week you could bet on the Australian Open, the National Hockey League, the Russian hockey league, 10 different European soccer leagues and European basketball.


Although many of the places take inspiration from English bookmakers, they use a hybrid of systems. The odds, or "coefficient" as it is called in Russian, are displayed not in the Western form of 3/1 or 7/2 but in decimal figures. For example the odds of France beating Morocco on Wednesday were 1.8, i.e. for every 100 rubles put on France, you win 80 rubles.


Unlike in England, though, Russian bookies use a handicap system for soccer and tennis as well as for basketball and ice hockey.


Then there are the multiple bets, called "express," which can raise the odds to riches level. Ilya Krevetsky, a longtime punter at the kiosk at Kinoteatr Mir on Tsvetnoi Bulvar, puffed on his Prima and recalled how he won $8,000 from a 100 ruble bet a couple of years ago.


Although the minimum bet in most places ranges from 10 to 100 rubles, most of the regulars put up more. Krevetsky tells of an acquaintance who deals in $10,000 to $20,000 a day. Metelitsa has a maximum bet of 50,000 rubles, but it can go higher at the management's discretion.


The three bookmakers that run most of the betting kiosks in Moscow - Favorit, FON and Offsite - have a reputation for honest business and immediate payment. But not all the customers do.


Dogovornye igry, or agreed-upon games, are a problem in Russian sports, and Yury Beskov of Favorit bookmakers says they have had a few cases where people have bet heavily with knowledge of the result.


"Everyone knows the result before," said one employee at Metelitsa, which doesn't take any bets on Russian sports.


Real gamblers will bet on anything, and local bookmakers have experimented with a few nontraditional bets. Favorit used to run a book on the rise and fall of the dollar - until they realized that the people betting knew a lot more than they did. Politics was also fair game for bets during the last election. Metelitsa has links with British William Hill, one of the world's biggest bookmakers, so in theory you can bet on a white Christmas in England or aliens landing before 2000.


The only bets really unpopular now are long-term ones because, given the ruble's recent behavior, your winnings may be worth nothing by the time you claim them.


These are the addressed of a few Favorit kiosks:


Moskva Movie Theater, 2 Triumfalnaya Ploshchad. Metro: Mayakovskaya.


Zvezda Movie Theater, 18/22 Zemlyanoy Val. Metro: Kurskaya.


Perekop Movie Theater, 33 Kalanchevskaya Ulitsa. Metro: Komsomolskaya


Mir Movie Theater, 11 Tsvetnoi Bulvar. Metro: Tsvetnoi Bulvar.


Tel. 945 3561. Open 2 p.m. to 7 p.m.


The Horse and Hound, 16/27 Malaya Kommunisticheskaya. Tel. 234-1900. Open noon to early hours. Metro: Taganskaya.


Metelitsa, 21 Novy Arbat. Tel. 745-5839. Open noon to 2 a.m. Metro: Arbatskaya.


Ampir, 4/10 Sadovaya-Triumfalnaya, 299-7974. Closed 10 a.m. to noon. Metro: Mayakovskaya.