Venezuelan Crisis Causes Boom in Gambling

Simply put, the economic crisis in Venezuela is forcing residents to live a life of desperation and deprivation.

While many Venezuelans are wondering where their next meal will come from, they are also wondering which one of 38 different animals to choose next in the nation’s latest gambling craze, Los Animalitos.

The game is a simple draw game sold at lottery agencies and whose results are revealed online hourly throughout the day. But the promise of a payout 30 times your original bet—and many times the monthly minimum wage—has left many risking what little they have in hopes of some good fortune.

A lottery based gambling game on the streets of Venezuela
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Even though the game is one of pure chance, players scrutinize the results of recent draws in hopes of finding a clue to which animal might be drawn next.

“A whole lore has developed around the numbers,” says Carlos Hernandez of the Caracas Chronicles. “Apparently, the scorpion stings twice: it’s liable to come out twice in a row. People swear to God that some days only animals from Africa appear, or water animals, or the zodiac.”

A roulette themed gambling game based in Venezuela
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This reliance on a game featuring cartoon animals did not happen overnight. Gambling has long been popular in Venezuela, so it seems natural that in a recession, Venezuelans would make a beeline to a game that could potentially pull them out of the poverty rat race.

Venezuela’s Gambling Climate

Given the ease with which anyone can find places to play Los Animalitos—Hernandez counted 13 parlors dealing the game within a two-block radius in Ciudad Guayana—it might be a surprise to learn that gambling in Venezuela is tightly controlled and fairly well regulated.

Casino licenses are handed out sparingly, which is why there are currently just five land casinos currently operating in the country.

The government also hands out online casino, lottery, bingo, and sports betting licenses, though citizens are free to wager at those based in other countries, without any issues. Betting on horses is particularly popular and can be done in-person at the nation’s four major race tracks or at one of many off-track betting facilities.

Horse racing fans attending a race in Venezuela
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Venezuela is also inadvertently serving as a bellwether of sorts for what many think might be the future of gambling: betting with Bitcoin.

While hyperinflation decimated the value of the Venezuelan bolivar, Bitcoin’s (relative) stability has allowed some citizens to feed their families and to have greater flexibility in gambling online.

Despite efforts by the government to block the cryptocurrency’s usage, it remains a means of living for some Venezuelans.

Why Gambling Has Become So Popular

The Land of Grace’s affinity for gambling is far from an anomaly when compared to its South American brethren.

Argentina is particularly gambling-enthusiastic, boasting more than 80 casinos including the continent’s largest, Casino de Tigre. Online poker, casinos, and bingo are also regulated and quite popular.

To the west of the Andes in Chile, gambling also flourishes as evidenced by the 17 land casinos and many more sport betting shops, racing tracks, and online casinos.

Gambling is popular with Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia too, where an estimated $1.1 billion was spent in 2012 alone playing the lottery, scratch cards, and at the country’s more than 5,000 betting shops.

A popular bingo hall in South America
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While gambling law isn’t as liberal everywhere in South America (e.g, Brazil, Ecuador, Suriname), there are several theories as to why gambling has flourished where it has on the continent.

For starters, South America’s passion for sport, particularly football, makes wagering on sport a natural extension of their fandom. Next, compared to many other nations, gambling is well-regulated and easily accessible, creating a low-barrier of entry for those that just wish to play casually every once in a while. This is especially true given the increasing ownership of smartphones and the advent of online casinos and sportsbooks.

Each of these South American nations has also had some sort of economic or political turmoil over the last century.

Research has shown that at least in the United States, some forms of gambling are essentially recession proof and lottery sales actually increase 0.17% for every 1% increase in unemployment.

Whether it’s a wise use of money or not, gambling provides not only community entertainment, but the promise of a windfall that can be used for survival in tough circumstances. It also serves as reminder of the ‘good old days’ when times were rough and people huddled around numbers nightly, full of hope.

Desperate Times

Back in Venezuela, many are foregoing wagering on animals in lieu of killing digital ones for money.

Gamers in the country have taken to ‘mining gold’ in the 15-year old MMORPG video game RuneScape.

Mining in gaming is essentially performing in-game actions (usually extremely repetitive moves) that generate game money which can then be converted into real-world currency.

In RuneScape, this means killing dragons from a certain area of the game, then selling the hides they drop for ‘gold’, which can then be exchanged for Venezuelan bolívar on a third-party site.

Despite farming being a prohibited practice that developer Jagex regularly bans thousands of accounts daily for, it remains the most stable source of income for many Venezuelans.

In-game action from the popular PC game Runescape
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“The truth is, there are people who, if they did not play, they could not eat and would die of hunger,” one ex-Runescape farmer told Kotaku. “I have friends who play daily, and if they do not play, they do not eat that day.”

Even though the ceiling level of income for farming is around $2-3/hour, other RuneScape gamers have not taken kindly to the influx of Venezuelan farmers into the game, and a guide published by one redditor on how to kill Venezuelan farmers in the game and insult them in Spanish caused a community uproar:

Waiting for The Future

For now, Venezuela’s future seems like a grim one. The government and its oil company recently defaulted, and bankruptcy seems inevitable.

So while Venezuelans wait for a life without record levels of corruption, unemployment, inflation, and murder, they wait in line to choose another cartoon animal from a board, or for digital dragons to regenerate.

After all, is any of it really gambling if there is nothing left to lose?