| USA TODAY Sports
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — One of the most mysterious places at any of the Olympic venues here has been impossible to ignore. For anyone driving into the Alpensia resort, the de facto nerve center of the Winter Games, the signs for a casino are posted everywhere.
It’s an unusual thing to see in the heart of the Olympics, largely because few people who are at the Games in any capacity (athlete, media member, coach) have much time to gamble. But at other times of year, the Alpensia resort is part ski lodge, part water park with several hotels and restaurants catering to international tourists. So maybe having a casino tucked behind a door adjoining the lobby of a Holiday Inn makes sense.
Finally, one night, my curiosity led me inside. Would it be full of partying athletes? Maybe some drunk fans or IOC muckety-mucks? But as I approached the door, where they asked for my passport, a large sign indicated there was one group of people I wouldn’t see inside: Locals.
According to the World Casino Directory, there are 23 casinos in South Korea scattered throughout the country. But by law, there’s only one — the Kangwon Land Casino & Hotel, located in a remote area roughly 55 miles from Pyeongchang — in which South Korean citizens are allowed to gamble.
It’s the product of an evolving set of laws here that would be unusual, to say the least, to American sensibilities. Whereas South Koreans can gamble on an array of games including a lottery, horse racing, boat racing and cycling, casino gambling is illegal — even for Koreans who travel outside the country.
According to the Korean Law Blog, which is authored by American Sean Hayes of IPG Legal, prosecution for overseas gambling is typically part of a larger case against someone. One attorney in Seoul, who spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to draw the attention of the government talking about such a sensitive topic, said significant numbers of trips to Las Vegas or Macau could draw the attention of prosecutors and potentially lead to criminal charges.
But as much as gambling is seen as problematic by the Korean government, there is a desire to build an industry around it catered to foreigners.
“There are some conflicting ideas in order to induce more foreign capital into Korea that we need to liberalize casino regulations because the foreign investors may develop the areas and increase job numbers and ultimately promote the Korean economy,” the attorney said. “But many people’s reaction is that positives are limited and there are more side effects.”
The attorney pointed out the prevalence of reports in the Korean news media highlighting people whose lives have been broken by gambling addiction.
“It’s a very sensitive issue for the general public,” the attorney said. “I haven’t seen any recent poll, but still there are some negative opinions on the casino industry, so it wouldn’t be easy for the government to liberalize the regulation on casino industry.”
But why? And isn’t it a bit of a contradiction to allow some types of gambling but not others? Then again, it’s not like gambling laws in the USA make perfect sense either (though a good start would be the Supreme Court striking down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, opening the door for states other than Nevada to allow sports gambling).
According to the Korea Center on Gambling Problems, which was established by the government in 2012, the prevalence of gambling addiction is two-to-three times higher in Korea than in other major countries. While it’s unclear how those statistics are compiled, the notion that Koreans are uniquely susceptible to gambling addiction is a widespread social theory that informs the laws surrounding the issue.
That’s why the Korean government allowed for one casino citizens can patronize, but put it in a remote, woebegone mining area that is difficult to get to from Seoul.
When I went inside the casino here, though, the first thing I noticed was Koreans. Of course, they were working there, despite the fact there wasn’t much work to do because there were hardly any gamblers.
A dozen card tables (mostly baccarat) and a roulette wheel were empty, except for a few guys from the NBC crew playing blackjack. The digital slot machines lining the walls were untouched.
In my trip to the blackjack table playing for 10,000 Won a hand (roughly $10), I discovered the following two pieces of information: There’s a school in Seoul where people go to learn to be casino dealers, and that the casino hadn’t really gotten much busier at all than what it was that night.
Though the dealers spoke English, it was a pretty basic setup, and one of them was very deliberate in both dealing the cards and painstakingly hand-shuffling the six-deck shoe. Even as someone who enjoys casinos, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant experience.
Though it was nice to know you could gamble if you want at these Olympics, I’ll stick to Las Vegas.