Archaeologists have recently unearthed what is believed to be a 17th-century underground Russian casino. The discovery was made at a site roughly 385 miles east of Moscow.
This find is significant because gambling was illegal in Russia at that time, and penalties for those caught violating the gambling ban included whippings, lashings, and even the dismemberment of the violator’s ears. Gamblers, therefore, had to come up with creative ways to conceal their gambling habits and escape punishment. It appears that the archaeologists’ discovery was a perfect example of such creativity.
The Archaeological Society of the Pskov Region was the group that made the discovery. They uncovered a wooden bench that had the markings a board game similar to chess, known as alquerque. This strategy board game traces its origins back to the Middle East and was a popular betting format in the 17th century. It is similar to draughts, which in turn is closely related to American checkers.
It would appear that the layout of the game was carved into the wooden bench so that, in the event that their underground casino was raided, players could quickly disguise the game simply by covering it up with a piece of decorative cloth and then sitting on it. The Archaeological Center has also said that pieces of the game have already been found in the area last year.
During the time when the underground casino that was unearthed was active, Alexis, the father of Peter the Great, was the Russian Tsar. He was a strong opponent of the gambling industry, which was why he imposed a strict ban on all gambling activities across the country during his time. According to the Archaeological Society, “Players had to go to all sorts of tricks to hide their addiction. Last year, we found a lot of chips for the game, and now more proof of the diverse pastime of the Pskov people.”
Gambling has always been a policy troublemaker for Russian leaders. Casinos and other gambling sites became popular in the 1990s, as oil money started to trickle down to the general public. Problem gambling was said to have gotten so bad that President Vladimir Putin had to declare gambling illegal in 2009, with only four remote zones exempt from the ban: Altai, Krasnodar, Kalimingrad, and Primorsky Krai.
Before Putin imposed the ban, there were an estimated 300,000 slot machines in operation in various locations across Russia. In exempting the four zones from the ban, Putin had hoped to create their own version of Las Vegas. However, there is currently only one casino resort operating in the Integrated Entertainment Zone of Primorye. It is located about 30 miles north of Vladivostok.
The Tigre de Cristal casino resort was developed and originally operated by Hong Kong billionaire Lawrence Ho. Ho is also the founder and CEO of Melco Resorts. The casino didn’t really get much traction, and Ho divested his stake in the struggling business in 2017. There is a bit of good news, though, as the casino is said to have enjoyed a surge in VIP business during the first six months of 2019. The slowdown in Macau has been credited for the rise in high-roller play in Russia.