A far-flung gamble

The Oracle Casino is currently the only such legalestablishment operating in Russia

The Oracle Casino is currently the only such legalestablishment operating in Russia

Could gambling in exile pay off? Kevin O'Flynn explores the special gambling zone on the Azov Coast, and finds there are signs of positive growth. But it's not exactly Las Vegas.

It takes a bumpy, three-hour drive along crumbling roads to travel from the nearest city to this lonely outpost in the middle of a barren field.

Visitors walk across wooden planks laid down over dug-up earth, as fluorescent-lit palm trees glimmer nearby. The building, squat and ugly, is festooned with blazing lights. Two stray dogs curl up by the entrance, hiding from the howling wind that sweeps in from the nearby Azov Sea.

Welcome to the Russian Las Vegas.

Yury Pozharov is the director of the Oracle, the first legal gaming site built since a Russian gambling ban last year restricted casinos and slot machines to four special zones in far-flung locations. Since it opened in February, he says the Oracle draws between 150 and 400 people a day, both locals and out-of-towners.

Last year, Russian gamblers were shocked, shocked to find out that gambling would no longer be legal in most of the country. The ban put hundreds of thousands of casino workers out of work and threatened to drain as much as $1 billion in tax revenues from state coffers.

It also put an abrupt end to a culture of entertainment and excess embraced by the country’s oligarchs and high rollers. (There are signs that illegal gambling is flourishing, however: a large underground casino was closed down in Moscow earlier this year, and as many as 40 criminal cases connected to other operations are currently pending in Moscow alone.)

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who first proposed the step while president, said the ban was a moral imperative that would save families of modest means from losing their last ruble. Instead, the Kremlin designated legal gambling zones in the Far East, Kaliningrad, Siberia’s Altai Krai and the Azov Sea coast. The plan, it was hoped, would funnel new income into economically sluggish regions while keeping the bulk of Russia vice-free.

Nearly a year into the experiment, however, foreign and Russian investors remain extremely skeptical. Azov City, near the mouth of the River Don in southern Russia, is the only zone to have successfully launched a casino.

Royal Time says a second casino is expected to open by summer, and a third by year’s end, with hotels and an aquapark to follow. The plans have sparked eager claims that the Azov City complex may eventually draw in as many as 25 million tourists a year.

For some visitors, it’s hard to imagine a boomtown rising from what essentially remains an empty lot. But locals are cautiously optimistic. Lyudmila, a resident of the neighboring village of Molchanovka, said her home would still be without heat if it weren’t for the Oracle and the infrastructure it demands.

“For us, of course it’s good,” she said. “They gave us gas, electricity, water. We have gas heating now, so of course it’s good for us. My sons don’t go there; they say they’ll never go. They’re scared because it sucks you in.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Oracle is the amount of time it takes to get there. The two nearest cities are hours away by car, and the conditions of roads leading to Azov City can be treacherous. (A Krasnodar lawmaker and his driver were killed in a late-night crash after visiting the Oracle.)

The casino has tried to sweeten the deal by offering free minibus service, but it hasn’t been enough to draw in the crowds. David Semelnikov, a 26-year-old fitter, may be the image of the Oracle’s ideal client — a die-hard gambler who doesn’t let a road trip stand in the way of his fix. He arrived at Azov City in his car at 11 a.m. for his fourth trip to the Oracle in a week.

Semelnikov says he has already made 5,000 rubles ($165) on the slot machines, and has winnowed the trip down to a relatively speedy 2 1/2 hours. He plans to spend four or five hours on the slots before heading back.

“They’ve banned it in the city, taken them all away and made a special entertainment center, where you can calmly, legally play,” Semelnikov said. “It’s the first legal club. So we’ve come from Rostov to try our luck.”

Andrei, a local taxi driver who refuses to give his last name, is among those who has seen his fortunes improve as a result of the casino, enjoying a busy trade shuttling clients back and forth between the Oracle and various cities.

But after losing several thousand rubles on the slot machines and watching other people fall into despair after losing even more, Andrei says he has personally lost his taste for gambling.

“The poor people come and end up with nothing,” Andrei said. "And these oligarchs who come with money, they just go on and on. They come, have their fun, then get in their Jeep and go on their way.”

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