Gambling charges “likely” will be dropped against foreign bridge players

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It is likely gambling charges will be dropped against 32 foreigners arrested at a Pattaya restaurant for playing bridge, but local police may still take action against the card club for lacking a license.

Jomtien & Pattaya Bridge Club President Jeremy Watson, 74, could face penalties for organizing the thrice-weekly card sessions, which have been going on undisturbed since 1994, as the group is not legally registered as a club and was using cards unapproved by the Excise Department, said Pattaya Police Chief Pol. Col. Sukthat Pumpunmuang.

The club has been shut down until the proper licenses are obtained.

More than 30 military and Banglamung District officials arrived at Alto’s Restaurant on Thappraya Soi 2 as the retirees looked up from their bridge hands and cold beers with bewildered looks.

Watson and 31 others, all foreigners over the age of 60, were detained for 12 hours and released on 5,000 baht bail each after signing confessions. They were told they could rescind their confessions the next day in court, but were never called to court.

The 26 men and 6 women detained included 12 British nationals, three Norwegians, three Swedes, two Australians, a German, a Dane, a Canadian, a New Zealander, a Dutch woman and an Irishman.

The story was picked up by The Associated Press, Agence France Press, the BBC, the Australia Broadcasting Corp, Al Jazeera, USA Today and countless other outlets.

On Feb. 5, head of Chonburi Provincial Police Maj. Gen. Amphon Buarubporn said the gambling cases likely would be dropped and bail refunded.

More than 30 military and Banglamung District officials arrived at Alto’s Restaurant on Thappraya Soi 2 around 3 p.m. on Feb. 3 with reporters and cameras as the retirees looked up from their bridge hands and cold beers with bewildered looks.

Jomtien & Pattaya Bridge Club President Jeremy Watson tries to explain to Banglamung District Chief Chakorn Kanchawattana that Bridge is not gambling and therefore not illegal in Thailand.

Officials leading the raid scoured the room in vain for cash or evidence of gambling, settling for taking score books and decks of cards, which lacked Excise Department seals, as they had been brought into the country from overseas.

Despite lacking any evidence of gambling, all the pensioners were hauled into the Soi 9 police station and held until after 3 a.m. on charges that the club was in possession of more than 120 cards in violation of the Playing Cards Act of 1943, and that the cards lacked government seals.

However, the playing cards law stipulates that an individual, not a group, cannot be in possession of more than 120 cards. The law also was amended in 1960 to specifically allow for the playing of bridge.

President of the Contract Bridge League of Thailand Chodchoy Sophonpanich, a civic activist and a member of a prominent Thai banking family, came to the aid of the local players – Watson is a league member – on Feb. 4, educating Pattaya police on the rules and status of bridge in the kingdom, noting it is considered a sport under the law.

Banglamung District Chief Chakorn Kanchawattana, who ordered the raid, said he was obligated to investigate the case after someone – reported by The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. to be a foreign ex-girlfriend of one of the members – filed a complaint with the district’s anti-corruption center claiming that illegal gambling was ongoing at the club. The newspaper claimed she had been a persistent troublemaker for the club, previously going to police with the same false claim and even standing outside the club mouthing obscenities at players.

Under the law, once the complaint was filed, there was little he could do, Chakorn told the media.

However, he said, it still turned out to be the case that the club did not have a license to play cards and was not legally established as a club or association.

“Members are allowed to participate in bridge clubs but must be played within private premises or authorized premises. They can’t just get together and play anywhere they wish, especially in public areas,” he said.

Barry Kenyon, founder of the Pattaya Bridge Club, has written a letter of explanation, which appears this week in the Mailbag section.