BRIGHTON, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 19: People play in an open round of Europe's biggest single venue bridge competition at the Metropole Hotel August 19, 2005 in Brighton, England. The game of Bridge is believed to share the same mental ability that is used to trade shares and is played regularly by over a million people. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
© Getty

The Thai resort of Pattaya has long been seen as a capital of sleaze — and its list of vices now apparently includes foreign retirees partial to a game of bridge.

Police in the coastal town took a break from busting prostitution and drugs rings earlier this week to swoop on elderly members of a longstanding card club, arresting more than 30.

Wednesday night’s raid appears to have been a zealous application of the country’s strict gambling laws, although no evidence has been produced that money was changing hands. The action puts freewheeling Thailand in an unlikely kinship with Saudi Arabia, where a leading religious scholar last month denounced chess as a potential vehicle for gambling.

Thai police detained and later released 31 people on bail after the raid on the Jomtien and Pattaya Bridge Club, according to the Pattaya One news website. Those arrested on suspicion of gambling and failing to use card decks with proper government seals included Britons and an 84-year-old Dutch woman, the site said.

The British embassy in Bangkok said it was in close contact with local authorities in Pattaya after the arrest and subsequent release of several British nationals.

Authorities targeted the club after receiving complaints foreigners were gambling there, a Pattaya police spokesperson said on Thursday. But charges might not be brought, because the club had assured them no money was changing hands.

“The president of the bridge club confirmed to us that they just played brain games — a bit like chess,” the spokesperson said. “We will forward this case to prosecutor’s office, and if it considers this is just a brain game the players will not be charged.”

BRIGHTON, UNITED KINGDOM - AUGUST 19: People play in an open round of Europe's biggest single venue bridge competition at the Metropole Hotel August 19, 2005 in Brighton, England. The game of Bridge is believed to share the same mental ability that is used to trade shares and is played regularly by over a million people. (Photo by Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)
© Getty

Thailand’s gambling rules exemplify a wider legal phenomenon in which tight regulations often mask a more relaxed reality. While betting is banned, there is a national lottery and a flourishing underground gambling industry.

In a town notorious for its sex industry, the bridge club’s card schools are unlikely to have been the most disreputable after-dark entertainment. Pattaya is also home to many European retirees who enjoy the lifestyle of the self-proclaimed “Land of Smiles” and cheap cost of living.

Jeremy Watson, a club organiser, said he was “extremely hopeful” the case would be dropped. A note on the club’s website said: “Closed temporarily whilst we get a new licence to have cards on the premises,” adding: “All problems have been solved with understanding by the authorities.”

Until the new permit arrives, Pattaya’s bridge community might be wise to say simply: “pass”.

Additional reporting by Panvadee Uraisin

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