It’s 3 pm on Wednesday, and the CamboSix office at the corner of Streets 63 and 184 is a riot of eager activity.
The daily afternoon football odds have just come out, and the small, one-room betting office is packed with people anxious to place their bets.
This is rush hour for the football betting set, and for this CamboSix outlet, business is obviously booming.
“We are packed every day,” said 22-year-old CamboSix customer service operator Thun Danyana. “Some people come three times a day—in the morning, the afternoon and the evening. We are trying to stay open 24 hours.”
It’s part of Thun Danyana’s job to demystify the betting process. He explains that, on this day, a $10 bet on Greece’s Olympiakos to defeat Spain’s Real Madrid will generate a $100 profit.
As he begins to patiently unpack the meaning of Asian and European odds, it becomes clear that international football betting is a befuddling mix of mathematics, geography and pure luck.
In downtown Phnom Penh one can easily peruse the pasted-up standings of Germany’s Bundes Liga, or find out how Juventus is performing this year in the Italian Serie A division. One can gamble on Guadalajara versus Veracruz in Mexico or put money down on Chelsea to defeat Liverpool in the English Premier League.
A sign taped to the wall states that any bet of over $50,000 cannot be paid on the premises.
“You have to study very hard or you will never win,” said Nimo Lama, 38, a tour guide who admits he spends one hour each day at the CamboSix.
“We use the Internet. Even if you can’t speak English you can look at the charts and recognize players’ names. It’s important to see the previous matches,” he said.
For CamboSix, capitalizing on football betting has never been more of a sure thing. The company, which was opened as Royal Cambodia Goals Co Ltd by CamboSix Investment Group in 2002, is the first and only legal sports gambling operation in Cambodia. According to Chea Peng Chheang, secretary of state for the Ministry of Economy and Finance, CamboSix has an exclusive contract with the government until 2007.
“Gambling in Cambodia is only legal if it has an approved license from the Ministry of Finance,” Mey Vann, finance-industry director for the Ministry of Economy and Finance, said Wednesday. “CamboSix became legal when it received its license in 2002… CamboSix used to be under the control of the Council of Ministers, but now it is under the Finance Ministry.”
Capitalizing on the love of both football and gambling, CamboSix has grown from five outlets in Phnom Penh three years ago to 21 locations in the capital and one in Sihanoukville. At the company’s three-story headquarters—emblazoned with the football-styled CamboSix logo—on Sihanouk Boulevard, bettors can create accounts to place bets by either telephone or the Internet.
“When we got here in 2002 there was already betting going on in the street. It has always been popular,” said CamboSix General Manager Nancy Chau on Wednesday, adding that she would not comment on the company’s finances, plans for expansion or management structure.
But the company’s remarkable growth and unmistakable popularity have not gone unnoticed.
“In other countries where gambling is taboo or unconstitutional, it is used for building infrastructure and social programs,” said Khek Ravy, president of the Cambodian Football Federation and a former secretary of state for the Ministry of Commerce.
“Because CamboSix is specifically a gambling concession for football it should do its utmost to help the national program—at present it does nothing,” he said.
According to Chea Peng Chheang, the government taxes CamboSix about $300,000 per year. The total tax revenue generated by all gambling is roughly $13 million per year, with casinos accounting for $11 million, he said.
Kang Chandararot of the Cambodia Institute of Development Study said the football gambling business is difficult to research, and that it is hard to track where the profits go.
“I am concerned by the phenomena,” Kang Chandararot said. “I don’t know where the money goes. It would be much better if the money flowed into social support programs, but it does not.”
Further down Street 63 from the CamboSix outlet where Thun Danyana works is a string of unlicensed and unmarked betting parlors. None has an official storefront, but the lottery board, football posters and betting slips belie their agenda. Sitting at a desk behind one is a young woman who declined to give her name. She explained that she makes $50 per month to run the parlor for a wealthy gambler who bankrolls the operation.
“CamboSix has a plan to ban all illegal betting, but I am not worried,” she said. “If they close us, they close us. We will find another place to bet. My employer pays the authorities, too.”
Some officials claim that these illegal betting shops may cause social problems—but not CamboSix. Mey Vann said that unlike CamboSix, the illegal parlors do not ban customers under 18 years old. Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development, is alarmed at the rise of gambling, legal or otherwise, and claims the government is not doing its part to protect the public.
“I am amazed and surprised when I see the number of CamboSix and other betting places on the sidewalk,” she said. “It suggests a lack of confidence in the future…. The success of CamboSix or any other gambling operation is at the expense of the Cambodian people.”