Gambling clubs still thriving in Prague despite promises to reduce their number

08-01-2006

In the summer of 2004 an explosion ripped through a busy shopping thoroughfare in the centre of Prague. The blast took place outside a casino and was a failed attempt to kill the casino's owner. News of the explosion, which injured some 20 people including foreign tourists, made headlines around the world.

In the days and weeks after the blast, the Czech media were discussing the connection of gambling, money laundering and organised crime in the Czech Republic. Everybody seemed to agree, including state-level and local officials, that the number of casinos and slot machine bars should be reduced and, definitely, no new ones should be opened. There are over sixty such establishments in the historic centre of Prague alone. In the aftermath of the explosion, the mayor himself promised Prague citizens that the number of gambling clubs and bars with slot machines will be reduced.

At the end of 2004, the Christian Democrats in Prague called on the city hall and the Prague Transport Authority - owned by the city - to remove slot machines from metro stations and stop signing new leases.

The promises and calls were welcomed by Prague citizens. But as usual, there is a catch. In 2004 Czechs spent 85 billion crowns on betting and gambling, and the industry employs 50,000 people. Individual Prague districts collect some 140 million crowns a year from gambling clubs. The Transport Authority makes 8 million by renting its property to bars with slot machines.

Regarding casinos, which are subject to different regulations, the authorities said after the blast that their hands were tied until a new lottery law was passed. The amendment was indeed submitted to the lower house six months ago. But according to Deputy Finance Minister Tomas Prouza its passing is being delayed by interest groups that lobby opposition MPs. Originally expected to come into force last Sunday, the law is unlikely to be passed before the June election, Mr Prouza says.

In the immediate surroundings of the Czech Radio building, on Vinohradska Street, there are three gambling bars. After the incident almost two years ago, I thought they might soon disappear, especially because they look a disgrace with their garish neon lights right next to a public service institution. It did not happen.

Recently a clothes shop closed down one block up from the radio building. Curious to see what's going to replace it I read the construction permit displayed in the window. It says that the Prague 2 municipality has approved its reconstruction into a gambling bar.

And directly across the street from the listed Czech Radio building, a large street level space is undergoing renovation. You can't see inside and the etched glass signs are still covered with black paper. One of the sheets came off the other day. It read: CASINO.

08-01-2006