Bangkok, Thailand – Every 15 minutes, a small crowd gathers in a small booth in a Bangkok market to wait for the numbers to be drawn.
The buzz of anticipation at each ping-pong lotto draw is heard but the excitement is short-lived.
When the fifth number was called at a recent pick-up, a man chewing the nut sighed because he had lost 1,000 Thai baht ($28). Someone calls out a 20-baht ($0.50) note.
Players who guess the right number can win 10 times their stake. But in the end, the house always wins.
“We can make $15,000 a month from each table and we can pay the right people to stay open,” a street booker who uses the footage told Al Jazeera, asking not to be identified.
With the Qatar World Cup starting on Sunday, Thailand is preparing for a rise in gambling, which, despite its popularity, is not allowed outside of a few government-approved venues.
Although Thailand did not qualify for the tournament, Thais are expected to bet up to $1.6bn on the match, according to researchers at the University of the Thai Chamber of Commerce.
“The heat of the World Cup will encourage 50 percent more gamblers,” Thanakorn Komkris, secretary of the Stop Gambling Foundation, told Al Jazeera.
“But the sad thing is that about a quarter of those new arrivals will become regular gamblers based on our experience in past football competitions.”
Under Thailand’s gambling law of 1935, betting is prohibited outside of official lotteries and limited horse racing.
Officials have argued that gambling goes against the principles of Buddhism, which is the dominant religion in Thailand, and promotes other problems.
However, illegal casinos, online betting shops, underground lotteries and book-ups that bet on everything from roosters to Muay Thai are everywhere, creating a wealth worth billions of dollars a year.
The COVID-19 pandemic and technology have made gambling easier than ever, said anti-gambling activist Thanakorn, as cash-strapped people turn to illegal websites that have spread across Southeast Asia.
“More than one million Thais are known to be gambling addicts,” he said.
“Some clash with families because they borrow money, but many others turn to lenders who are often tied to illegal football websites… they are like a web.”
Ahead of the World Cup, Thai police said last week they had shut down 500 websites linked to a national gambling syndicate known as “Fat Fast”. Authorities seized nearly $13m in assets as part of the raid, local media reported.
Jun, a 34-year-old office worker in Bangkok, knows all too well the temptations that accompany the heat of the World Cup.
He lost about 40,000 baht ($1,120) – several times the average salary – at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, where he bet up to 2,000 baht ($55.70) per game. Even though he lost, Jun plans to have a flutter this time as well.
“But with the economic instability I don’t think I can take the risk this time,” he said. “I just want to be a part of it, it makes watching the game so much more fun.”
Like many Thais, Jun bets with the neighborhood bikers, who act as street assistants for the underground dealers who ply their trade in almost every neighborhood.
But he says real money has to be won – and lost – online, where millions of baht can be at stake.
Most of these companies are based on the Thai-Cambodian border, according to government officials.
The Center for Gambling Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok estimates that these gambling establishments will create 700,000 new gamblers this year alone.
Thailand’s money flowing into these sites – and the proliferation of casinos in neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar – has prompted some lawmakers to move proposals to amend the 1935 Gambling Act to allow licensed casinos.
In June, the legislature heard a debate on the issue, which led to the creation of a committee to review the simplification of the law. If successful, forcing out gambling in the shadows would destroy long-standing protests and could result in billions of dollars in tax dollars flowing into illegal businesses.
Opponents say businesses that will receive operating licenses will expand rapidly, making it difficult for the authorities to stop them, especially if they are accompanied by such dirty things as prostitution, people-trafficking, drug and illegal money-lending.
Activists like Thanakorn also say any legal change must be preceded by a strong debate on health and social issues in a country that is already addicted to gambling.
“There is no way this is a good idea,” Thutchakrit Wongpanaporn, a former gambler who runs a YouTube channel warning people about the dangers of gambling, told Al Jazeera.
“Unless Thailand can regulate gambling like other Western countries, I don’t see it,” said Wongpanaporn, better known as Sia Joe, who lost more than $1.5m to his addiction. “The government should regulate online gambling first before considering the legalization of casinos.”
There are also fears of who could take control of the gambling industry, with casinos in neighboring Cambodia and Laos notorious as online fraud sites run by Chinese gangsters.
“In a ‘dark business’ like gambling, which is associated with criminals, there is no strong or sufficient regulator to deal with it,” said Wongpanaporn.
For gamblers like Jun, legalization would be a good thing. Regardless of its complications, it could free millions of Thais from legal threats.
“Things are in Thailand, gambling is part of our DNA,” he said.