Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Robust rules lacking in live casino boom

Cambodia is Indochina’s undisputed king of live dealer gaming, with land-based casinos rushing to install dedicated set-ups to stream action from gaming floors to online players.

Cambodia has witnessed an explosion in casino gaming of late – and it shows little sign of subsiding. There were 150 active casino licenses at the end of 2018, according to the country’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, which was a 53 percent increase on the previous year’s total of 98 active licenses. Despite the fact it’s illegal for Cambodians to gamble, the country has a booming casino market, attracting gamblers from across Asia.

However, securing a license in Cambodia means a casino is, by default, able to offer online gaming too, including the live streaming of games for online players to bet on remotely. This tantalizing prize means the prospect of installing and launching a lucrative live casino offering is often the primary reason for seeking a license in the first place. It has also turned the Southeast Asian country into a hotbed for live dealer gaming.

One operator betting big on live casino in Cambodia is Donaco International at its Star Vegas casino in Poipet, a border town neighboring Thailand that is the closest legal gaming destination to the greater Bangkok area (a four-hour drive away). As well as over 100 gaming tables and 1,500 slot machines catering mainly to Thai nationals, the resort has also installed a live casino set-up consisting of 12 tables offering baccarat, sicbo, roulette and dragon tiger.

The games are streamed live from a dedicated space overlooking a section of the property’s casino floor. Star Vegas is also in the testing phase of a relaunch with a new software platform. “Players in Asia especially have more trust when physical cards and live dealers are involved,” says Ben Reichel, executive director of Donaco International. “Also, of course, having a real physical casino with a solid reputation and valid operating license is very important to build trust in online gaming.”

The ASX-listed operator bought Star Vegas – Poipet’s largest casino – for $360 million in 2015. Yet live gaming wasn’t a driving force at the time.

“We purchased the Star Vegas business primarily for the strength of its physical casino offering, to players from Thailand and Bangkok in particular,” says Reichel. “Online is a growth area, as the business has not previously sought to operate in this market.  We are proceeding cautiously and ensuring we retain the strength of the brand that Star Vegas has built in the Thai market, and increasingly in other Asian markets.”

Besides Poipet, the port city of Sihanoukville is also a live casino hub. Once a quiet fishing village and a haven for backpackers, Sihanoukville has become a magnet for Chinese investment, including the construction of casinos. There are more than 30 casinos and some 70 more under construction in this special economic zone, turning this part of Cambodia into a mini Macau.

Canadian Jonny Ferrari worked out of Sihanoukville as a consultant to Cambodian casinos before recently relocating to the US. Speaking to AGB from Texas, he pulls no punches when discussing the proliferation of live casino. “Cambodia is the number one exporter of live casino because it’s so easy to procure a license. It’s easier to get a license for live casino than a license for a restaurant. Plus, you can bribe [officials]. Everything and everybody are for sale – and I mean everybody.” He adds: “Sihanoukville is the Wild West and a cesspool for corruption.”

So, with casino licenses fairly easy to secure, as well as scant regulation and oversight, it’s clear why casinos are quick to set aside areas for live dealer tables, as well as HD cameras, microphones and the back-end infrastructure to stream the action online. The primary target for live casino players are gamblers situated in Mainland China, where almost all forms of gambling are outlawed.

To stay under the radar there, agents on the ground recruit gamblers to play on websites with URLs containing a jumble of letters and numbers, while cryptocurrencies are a common payment method. Often though, according to Ferrari, live casino can be as rudimentary as an agent sitting at a table in a Cambodian property and taking photos on his phone of the cards and bets. “They [Chinese gamblers] are placing bets through their stealth agents who are physically there,” Ferrari explains.

With no cap on the number of land-based licenses due to be awarded in Cambodia, the live casino gold rush is set to continue unabated – and unchecked. Yet Reichel says the high-profile brick-and-mortar brands hold the upper hand. “Some operators have been setting up physical casinos solely in order to offer online gaming. But unless they have a solid track record of operation as a physical casino, many online players will not trust them anyway.”

What Cambodia desperately needs is a robust framework to properly regulate online gaming. This would legitimize live casino and help create a proper omni-channel gaming experience similar to Europe where operators strive to provide a seamless experience between land-based and online. This does seem some way off, though. For Ferrari, live casino is likely going one of two ways: “There is either going to be a major explosion of legitimacy, or there is going to be an implosion by way of criminality.”


Asia Gaming Brief is a news and intelligence service providing up to date market information for worldwide executives on relevant gaming issues in Asia.

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