Predicting Precipitation Pays for Gambling Group

When the skies darken over Phnom Penh, Ka Tha sits intently with friends and takes a calculating view of the horizon. After a few minutes he may walk to a board and make a bet: How much it will rain, where and when.

There’s money to be made on days like this, but only for those who know the secrets of the wind and the capricious nature of Cambodia’s rains.

“I learned to predict rain from my father,” Ka Tha said. “You cannot be good everywhere. The trees, the mountains, buildings, lakes and winds all play a role in the rain.”            To the average city-dweller, there is only one thing to know about rain: How to avoid it. The rains that come every season are a scourge on the urban environment. In the countryside, the rains can do much worse damage, such as destroying crops and roads that link rural residents to markets.

But rain betting is a popular pastime in the provinces, particularly in rural towns. And somewhere in the city after a rainstorm, Ka Tha may be counting his winnings.

At a secret location in Phnom Penh—which they don’t advertise for fear the police will interfere—he and his friends sit on the top floor of a concrete building. There are waist-high walls to prevent anyone from falling off, but no walls to block the view.

Their perch commands a sweeping view of the horizon to the south and west of the city. Storms appear in the distance long before they ever reach Phnom Penh, allowing plenty of time to wager before the rain falls. Or doesn’t fall.

A 4-meter-by-5-meter tin roof over the bettor’s heads is outfitted to collect the rain and pour it into a bucket. Bettors use the measurements kept by the bucket to determine how much rain has fallen. If it rains elsewhere in Phnom Penh, but merely drizzles on the tin roof overhead, the rainfall does not count. The proof has to be in the bucket.

To make wagers, the bettors divide into two groups: those who say it will rain and those who say it will not. They place their bets, then wait. There are three betting periods every day: 6 am to noon, noon to 6 pm and 6 pm to 6 am.

On a recent sunless Friday afternoon, bettors at 11:30 am put down $100 against $20 that there would be no rain until 6 pm. If rain fell, one set of bettors would collect $20 from the other set; if no rain fell, one side would owe $100 to the other.

It’s a game of chance to some. But to those who practice it, rain betting is a skilled craft that re­quires intimate knowledge of meteorology.

Ka Tha said he knows that a strong wind will break clouds apart and that no rain falls from a windy sky. But if there is no wind, and it’s hot, the bettors prepare for a downfall, he said.

The rain bettors drew attention about two years ago from a group of Japanese meteorologists, bettor Hak Heng said. They came with an “instrument,” he said, to forecast rain. They were unable to perform as well as the experienced bettors who sit with him on the roof, though.

“The instrument lost. It could not predict as specifically as eyes,” he said.

A noodle shop owner from nearby, at whose shop the bettors often have breakfast, said police have known about the rain bettors for a long time. There’s no crackdown, the vendor said, because there’s never been a problem among the bettors and they sometimes pay the police for security.

A police officer in a nearby commune said there’s never been an order to crackdown on the group because there’s never been a problem.

“I’m not sure if betting on the rain is illegal or not. It is like betting on football, lottery or boxing,” he said, asking to remain anonymous.

For those who can’t be sure about their rain-guessing skills, Ka Tha advised what he calls a “win-win” bet. He first bets $40 to someone else’s $100 that it will not rain. Then he turns around and bets $200 to someone else’s $40 that it will rain.

If it rains, he loses $100 from the first bet but makes $200 from the second, profiting by $100. If it does not rain, he wins $40 from the first bet, but loses $40 from the second.

At the rooftop where the bettors practice their craft, a row of chairs faces the southern skies. A small bar in the corner serves drinks and refreshments for the crowd of 50 or so who mingle on the roof, chatting in between bets and talking on their cell phones.

Behind the chairs are running games of Chinese cards and board games, where more esoteric forms of betting take place.

Chhay Eng Kea said he makes 10,000 riel a day betting on the last two numbers of the lottery. Even on unlucky days, he can count on winning bettors to spread the luck around with a tip from some of their haul.

Chhay Eng Kea and his friend Sophear said they get 5,000 or 10,000 riel presents from the big winners of the day.

They like their pastime, but bemoan the rising influence of television.

Nowadays, Chhay Eng Kea said, people make less money on rain betting and on his specialized breed of lottery number betting.

More young people, he said, like to bet on football matches they watch on satellite television in street-level cafes.

As the winds shifted on a re­cent afternoon and clouds stacked up on the horizon, the bettors stood along the wall and stared into the distance. A breeze kicked up and the first drops of rain fell on the tin roof like fingers tapping on a table.

Someone was about to get lucky.

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