Confessions of a Bridge Criminal
by Avon Wilsmore Feb. 5, 2016
Right now I am holidaying in Sattahip, a small town 40km south of Pattaya, 175km south of Bangkok. I stay with a friend who is an expert in shrimp production and shrimp hatchery management.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings I take a mini-bus up the highway to Pattaya. This costs 40 baht one-way (US$1 = 37b, EUR1 = 40b). I then have lunch, generally an excellent pork noodle soup (damn, another 40b out the window!) or chicken-rice soup, equally good.
I then head to the Pattaya/Jomtien Bridge Club, arriving about 12:30 for coffee and await the 13:00 duplicate.
On Wednesday, 3rd Feb 2016, my partner was Norwegian Trond Rogne. He is a retired Professor (Civ Eng), a world authority on the corrosion of oil pipelines and winner of the 1988 IBPA Hand of the Year. He lives in Jomtien (next beach district south) with his Thai wife and children.
The club's standard is "mixed"... Erik Sælensminde (BB 2007) is a frequent player, as is a 92yo English communist, whose love of the Dialectic is equaled only by his affection for six-card majors and Worser Minor.
At the Club
All was normal in our 8 table 3/4 Howell until 15:30, when a large collection of police, military and press came clomping up the stairs. They milled about looking silly while players paid not much attention to them - it was, after all, the middle of a round. The game proceeded without interruption until the normal 16:30 end, with the exception of a few people trying to explain to the authorities, in between hands, that there was no gambling taking place. I told some military officers that they should come and learn bridge but they didn't seem too interested. I showed the large press contingent this link:
Upon recognising a familiar face there, they twigged that this was going to be one mighty big SNAFU.
We sat around the club while the police and military examined such wickedness as BridgeMates and puzzled over bidding boxes. Of course, once they found the scores on the computer, we were done for! There were [match]points and points means scoring and scoring means gambling. No, I don't quite follow that, either.
They impounded the secret register of cash wins (actually a log of electricity meter readings; club helper Dave likes to argue the toss with the owner), the boards, computer and other equipment. At 18:00 we were told to go downstairs and hop in the buses; it was off to the police station on the corner of Beach Rd and Soi (side-road) 9. We were going to be fined 1,000b each for gambling.
At the Police Station
We were put into a large room with air conditioning, a big table and plenty of chairs. We sat around chatting; the boards were on a side-table but my offer to play low-stake rubber bridge was rejected. Some people have no sense of adventure.
Soon we found out that the charge was not gambling, but playing on unregistered premises. The club was set up in 1994 by Honorary British Consul Barry Kenyon (a player on that day and detained with us at the police station) and had some certificate or other, but it did not meet with the authorities' approval. It did three months earlier during a routine inspection; go figure, as the Americans say.
And then there was the matter of the playing cards - some were not stamped! No, I'm not from Monty Python. See section 8 here:
Later, the gambling charge was reinstated. We had fooled them for only a short time with the absence of cash, but that was easily explained: With typical Western craftiness, we were obviously settling up later by bank transfer. These evildoers must be stopped!
The price had gone up for attempting to fool the loyal and honest Thai officials - now 5,000 baht, payable toot sweet or stay there indefinitely.
The deal was:
- each person is charged with gambling, bail set at 5,000b
- each person signs document agreeing that they had been gambling
- we are released that night after bail payment
- we attend court the next morning to answer the charges
Well, that didn't sound like a good deal to me. I have quite an aversion to signing false declarations. However, Trond Rogne had called his lawyer, who was there to advise us. Her view was that this "confession" was no big deal, we could retract and contest the matter in court. Getting home was to be preferred, so that's what we did.
All except one person, a German lady who said that no way would she declare that she had been gambling when she had not and to hell with it, she would take whatever was coming, good or bad, and no paying bail for her.
Well, full marks for adhering to one's principles, and I may well have done the same in a Western jurisdiction, but the fact that one could retract and contest in court swayed the matter for me.
And as an aside, I spent some three months in 2011 getting my wife out of a Lebanese jail; she was there after false accusations were made by a malicious psychopath that she was an arms dealer and an Israeli spy. I spent quite some time observing conditions in jail; the police are courteous and polite until they are not, and when they are not one will very much wish to be somewhere else. One cannot be certain if and when the mood will change and it's better out than in.
Anyway, some people had the 5,000b on them, some did not. Calls were made, the ATM visited, and those who were short were fixed up.
In the meantime, assorted friends and relatives visited and did runs to the nearby 7-11 for supplies. The police provided free cartons of bottled water. And, most importantly, club manager Jeremy Watson, a retired British chartered accountant and long-time Thailand resident, had been on the phone to the Thailand Bridge League officials who were more than a little perturbed about the matter. We had a secret weapon in the form of Khunying Chodchoy (Esther) Sophonpanich, whose photo the journalists had recognised on the TBL web site. Khunying Sophonpanich is President of the Asia-Pacific Bridge Federation.
Now if I understand correctly, Khunying is an high-end honorific that can only be bestowed by the King. Esther had quite a bit to say to the police by telephone that night and agreed to attend the police station and court the next morning. This is something like finding out that Baroness Rothschild is heading to the local police station to sort out some minor matter - she will get a hearing, and then some, particularly in a monarchy.
It was now getting on to midnight and there had been some "issues".
- Trond's children (aged 6 and 9) were waiting to be picked up from school (his wife visiting her mother in the north) and requests to the police for assistance were ignored. Eventually he was able to get a friend to pick up and care for the children overnight; the poor children had no idea why they had been abandoned.
- An elderly Dutch lady with some health problems was visited by a most irate member of the local Dutch Club; he wanted her home asap. After quite some arguing she was released at midnight.
- Two players needed their medication. This was denied and, while I have not researched the matter, may well be a human rights violation.
- Jeremy Watson was charged with card tax evasion (the unstamped cards) and running the club on unregistered premises; his bail set at 50,000b. A whip-around quickly raised that. I asked to be shown the relevant legislation; furthermore, I wanted to see the documentation for Jeremy's bail, it having strangely come down 140,000b to 80,000b to 50,000b. I gather these were amongst the funniest things I have ever said. Even Trond's lawyer was in stitches.
It was a matter of sitting about waiting, with the occasional signing of documents (Father's name! Mother's name!), having passports confiscated and being fingerprinted. The slowest part was waiting to be called up one by one... a minor Thai official spent an age staring at a list of names, wondering how to pronounce such strange jumbles of letters (Ole Skjeveland?).
At 03:00, 4th Feb, we were free to leave, all except the courageous German non-signer and card tax evader Jeremy Watson, who had more paperwork to attend to. Trond's lawyer was still there, so things looked to be under control for them both. We were under orders to attend the police station at 10:30 and be ready to attend court later in the day.
Getting back to Sattahip was too much of a chore; I got a 500b hotel room for the night and had delightful dreams of Khunying Sophonpanich tasering assorted bare buttocks.
We congregated at Soi 9 in the morning; it was as I expected, just more waiting.I found out that Jeremy had been released at 05:15; no sign of Ms Courageous Non-signer.
Esther Sophonpanich (on whose team I played in Canberra in 1982) appeared and was as charming and courteous as always. She headed upstairs to kick the sh... I mean, quietly discuss the matter with the the Chief of Police and was there for over an hour. Trond's lawyer was there, as was legal representation of the owner of the bridge club building.
While waiting, I found the local reports online; I was optimistic that word would spread to Western outlets. It most certainly has.
Esther came down to tell us that the gambling charges had been dropped; we would get our passports returned shortly and the 5,000b bail money would be refunded.
We were free to go home at about midday. The German non-signer had been held at a different venue and was released.
EDIT: In fact it took some hours after our release for Jeremy and a lawyer to locate the German lady; she was released in the company of her husband at about 16:00.
You may have wondered, why the military presence in all this?
Thailand is under military rule (albeit with plenty of freedom for everyone) and one of the mandates is to stop corrupt activities. One such is gambling, another is police bribery. The military came along to police both.
And how did all this come about?
The Guardian report on the previous page is on the right track; this nonsense was started by the disaffected Thai ex-wife of a man who works for the owner of the club building. She is a nutter; last week she came by to accuse me of being an Australian policeman sent to spy on her. She made a complaint of gambling to the Office of the Prime Minister, whose staff have perhaps been a little over-enthusiastic.
Returning to the matter of the unstamped cards: http://www.thailawforum.com/laws/Playing%20cards.pdf
Jeremy Watson is still facing charges of too many cards, unstamped cards, card tax evasion and failing to wash behind his ears. Ok, I made the last one up, but you get the idea. Fines and/or jail seem to be mandatory. We'll see!
We have a Thai lawyer examining the wording of the Thai legislation.
What is meant by "person" and "possess" in Section 8?
Is bridge, recognized in Thailand as a sport, exempt from the "120 cards" provision?
How does the fact that the club has been given gifts of packs of cards from overseas visitors affect matters?
Well, if I thought such questions were of interest to anyone I would be sure to keep you informed.
But I doubt that they are.