It’s easy to forget, as we effortlessly log on to our favourite online casino to enjoy a few games, that gambling is not always without peril. In many places in the world, gambling is illegal. In places where it is legal, it is not unheard of for operators to take their business underground, unhappy with the regulations imposed on them by gambling authorities or simply unwilling to pay their dues.
Today we are talking about some of the biggest illegal gambling operations in history. These operators went down the illegal road for different reasons but the lesson remains the same throughout — it doesn’t pay to fight the law. It will eventually win.
Millions a day in Seoul’s invisible casino
Gambling in South Korea is illegal, except in the somewhat remote former mining district of Gangwon. Located about 150 miles from Seoul, it is quite a long way to travel for the pleasure of putting down a quick bet or playing a round of blackjack. Many Korean cities do have casinos but these only allow tourists to play. This obviously created a niche market that criminals were eager to exploit.
In early 2016, after 5 years of undercover police work, the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency announced that they had brought down what they believed to be the biggest illegal gambling den to date. How did such a massive operation go unnoticed?
The den’s operators — two guys named Yoon and Ahn — were crafty, using some amazingly ingenious techniques to keep their operation hidden. They ran their illegal business out of… regular businesses. They occupied nondescript office buildings, even hiring receptionists and fake employees to cover their tracks. They also relocated every few months to throw the police off their scent. Little did they know that they’d already been made.
Given that this operation was not targeting high rollers — just your average casual gambler, who would spend a few bucks each time — their turnover is even more impressive. During peak years, it was estimated that this operation was handling some $12 million a day, running about 70% of all illegal gambling in Seoul! Over five years, the police figured these guys took home $25 million in profit.
In total, some 70 people, aside from the two ringleaders, were arrested and charged in connection with this massive operation.
Decades-long sports scams
Even if you aren’t a huge sports and betting fan, chances are you’ve heard the name Frank Rosenthal. The movie ‘Casino’ (1995) was largely based on his life, with the protagonist played by Robert de Niro.
Frank’s dodgy dealings began early on. He was absolutely mad for sports, often skipping school to go and watch baseball games at Wrigley Field, the home of the Chicago Cubs. His passion for sport remained prevalent and before long, he was helping gangsters fix matches and parting punters from their hard-earned cash.
His biggest exploits earned him national notoriety. He began working as a bookie with the Chicago Outfit. He would use funds from a legitimate Mafia-run home improvement business to bribe athletes into missing shots, striking out or whatever move would throw the game in question. As the bookie, he would then reap the losses of the unwitting bettors, who probably couldn’t believe their bad luck.
Despite relocating several times to avoid the authorities and facing countless charges in relation to his operation, Rosenthal was only successfully charged once. He pleaded no-contest to bribing a New York University basketball player to purposely miss shots. He was so big a target for the authorities that the FBI kept a close watch on him — you know you’re in trouble when the feds have a 300-page dossier on you.
Rosenthal died in 2008 and leaves behind quite the legacy. He ran 4 casinos with less-than-standard paperwork and even an attempted assassination didn’t dissuade him. A legend, though perhaps for the wrong reasons.