Luck and loss in the CBD

By Sisa Canca 

The hiss of slot machines, private conversations, numerous television commentaries and crackling sounds of tables and chairs filled U Bet – one of Johannesburg’s popular gambling clubs.

Mungoma, a 25-year-old strapping lad from Thohoyandou, Limpopo, sheepishly squeezed into this packed building for the first time in his life and took a chair that had just been vacated by one of the regular punters.

Mungoma has heard through the grapevine that people make money, lots of money in these gambling houses should luck fall into their laps.  He has since been toying with the idea of coming in to push his luck in either sports betting or lottery. But he also isn’t sure whether to just stay away from gambling completely.

To this point, he hasn’t made up his mind.  “I think sports is better though, because the results are determined transparently. All you need to do is watch the games for yourself.   But … I don’t know man,” he says as he inspects in painstaking detail a pile of betting slips on the table.  He says he is in need of cash and winnings as little as R5 000 would suffice.

“Andinawuza apha ngomso ndingawinanga kaloku” (I wouldn’t come here tomorrow without having won anything) a strident voice came as a parting shot from Sihle, a regular gambler, behind us as she was leaving her group of friends, spontaneously offering the newbie (Mungoma) a blinding glimpse of the obvious.

Truth is, to strike it lucky, Mungoma will have to risk a portion of his stipend he earns from East Rand Water as an intern process controller.  He feels aloof about spending that R2 or R6 for a single bet.  “Gambling may be rewarding but it involves wastage of money”, he says.

But gamblers want the experience they believe only people with money enjoy.  They are convinced that just a bit of more money would make things right.  Every win is breads hope with exhilaration.  Violet, a regular gambler, says she feels “ecstasy” when she wins.

A desperate quest for money

Crowds of people from across Johannesburg (mostly from the townships) converge in five of the licensed betting houses in the inner city or at some random street corner in pursuit of a windfall that would change their lives for good.

Most punters downtown are motivated to gamble by only one reason- money.  They are apt to build castles in the air and they believe their dreams of a better life would come true one day.

However, gambling demands some resources which may not always be within easy reach.  Regular gamblers, specifically, need enough time to decide their bets, and money to play with.

They sacrifice their hard-earned monies for something bigger and better.  Most of them have 9-5 jobs or businesses that lade them with even more responsibilities.

Violet, who is also a university graduate from Nigeria, says sometimes she cannot gamble because either she doesn’t have money or her food business needs her presence.

CLICK CLICK: Slot machine gamblers trying their luck at Supabets on a Sunday afternoon.

Getting the numbers right

For gamblers, choosing numbers for their bets requires more than just guesswork.  Sihle, a mineworker, spends her waking hours cinching the numbers before taking a 67 kilometre trip from Carltonville to tempt fortune with her money at U Bet.

She goes underground with a notepad and a pen, specifically earmarked for taking notes of signs to be interpreted to numbers later on.  She is constantly on the look-out for signs and symbols and every dream she dreams has got a meaning about a potential lottery number.

Certain incidents, most of which come in a dream but sometimes even in real life, mean a certain number is extremely likely to win.  Gamblers will see a combination of numbers in a dream, which need to be jotted down as soon as they wake up from sleep.  Failure to do this, gamblers believe, will result in letting the numbers slip from memory.

If she dreams of a prostitute, then number 15 is her lucky number the following day.  A dead man represent number 4, whereas human faeces represent number 34.  A urinating man means 47 is the number, sea water is number 3, a graveyard is 30, fireworks is 38, a little boy is 33 and so and so forth.  Every lottery number from 1 to 49 has more than one symbol attached to it.

This belief system comes from a widely-accepted Dream Guide available in most of these gambling clubs in Johannesburg.  This system stipulates that there is a symbiotic relationship between dreams, numbers and people’s names.

Some gamblers keep track of recent previous results to follow a pattern.  Dunisani believes he has cracked a winning system of some lottery competitions.

“Yesterday I made a terrible mistake.  I switched my Powerball and lunchtime (UK 49) numbers around.  I would have won both”, he says with rue and signs of a heavy heart.  “I don’t subscribe to this Dream Guide thing, most people have these visions because that is what they are obsessed about” he says.

STUDYING THE NUMBERS: Punters going through recent results to follow a pattern that will help them decide on their next lucky numbers or scores.

Going the extra mile

Sihle takes the first Metro Rail train straight after her night shift at 8:15 AM to arrive in Johannesburg Park Station about two hours later.  By the time she leaves Carltonville, she has already decided on the most important numbers of the day’s world lotteries, including France Powerball, Greece Lotto, local lotto and Powerball, UK 49’s tea and lunch time bet games.

Some gamblers have the luxury of time in their jobs to focus their attention on their future bets.  Olebile, a Jo’burg City security guard, says they converse about sports betting at work with his colleagues long before they pay Hollywood Bet a swift visit during an hour-long lunch time break.  Like Sihle, who goes underground in the mine with a book and a pen, some would go about doing their jobs while secretly gratifying their betting hunger.

Between the time someone plays to the moment the numbers come out, gamblers go through a psychological turmoil.  The anticipation is one fervid, adrenaline-filled conjecture often displayed, in these dens, by intense focus on screens and tickets with few exchanges of words if any at all during the moments of results release.  “There is anticipation. Also a doubt that maybe you should have played this number instead of that one” says Violet, also a regular gambler at U Bet.

Punters need less convincing in if any at all to check the results.  Besides TV screens inside the clubs, punters make efficient use of computer monitors installed inside for them to use.  During travelling hours, they regularly check updates on their phones.

When money is too tight, more hospitable environments like U Bet have a culture of fellow gamblers, at times complete strangers, helping each other with money.  Sometimes, punters would have a good start, especially in the slot machine games and end up using all their gains and the money they had for other usages.

Terrence Mpofu, cashier at Hollywood Bet, says she always have people who need money to get home because they have used all money they had on gambling.  “I help them whenever I can, but sometimes it becomes too much and I wouldn’t have enough myself to help all of them” says Terrance.

This depicts the life of regular gamblers.  They lose money, and sometimes go bankrupt.  Violet was once up to her ears in debt trying to sustain her gambling passion.  “I was financially bankrupt.  I remember this one day I played R3 500 without any control” she says.  Loosing comes with a great deal of misery.  “I struggle to sleep at night when I’ve like a lot of money and I just change, even my children notice me” says Sihle.

In her very first bet, soon after she arrived in the country back in 2002, Violet made R2 000 out of R10 she invested as her betting price.  The next time she played, a fellow countryman from Nigeria disappeared with a R30 ticket which could have won her over R5 000.  She later learned through her other friend of her winnings.

While still in that state of despair, she gathered that women gambling in South Africa was not in any way as taboo as people make it to be in her home country.  “In Nigeria, it is taboo for a woman to gamble.  So gambling for me here represent some kind of freedom” Violet says.

LOOKING OVER THE SHOULDER: Gamblers keeping tabs on the latest lottery and sports results across the globe on a monitor screen.

The inside of the gambling world

Betting dens are generally loud, busy places with people from different backgrounds sharing an interest or two.  At the entrance, there is always a security guard who searches everyone coming in, presumably for dangerous items.

Some would have a mobile security scanner that they’ll run all over your body to detect such items, whereas some will grope around your waist with bare hands, whether you are a man or a woman.

There is usually a speaker at the entrance.  Loud music is more audible at the entrance than inside.  Inside are different queues for different games ranging from lucky numbers, action sport (dominated by soccer), horse-racing, lotto and Powerball.

Lucky numbers people have their eyes fixed on screens twice every five minutes.  A stopwatch is always visible for everyone to see the countdown to the next draw.  When that time comes around, a lady (usually white) in either a black or red dress appears on the screen to facilitate the process.

Scenes of tantrums escorted by heavy huffs and foul language coming out in gasps (when a number they played is closer to the one on screen) are usually a constant background noise in these particular queues.  And rarely do you hear a roar of celebration and when that happens, people incline towards that particular winner, wanting to confirm for themselves if the numbers on the ticket correlate with the ones shown on the screen.

Soccer fans are quite obvious to notice with their markedly long slips with fixtures of up to 50 games at times.  They will fill up their coupons while looking at fixture books, which tend to be a couple of about six to 15 pages.  The fixture booklet has codes which direct them on what to tick on the coupon for different choices.

The horse-racing community is more relaxed than others.  It never really gets tense unless a major event is on the cards and the horses are heading for a finish line.  Every gambler shouts their chosen horse number, “woza number 8” (come on number 8..or 12 or 17 and whatever the case may be).

Thwala, a 60-year-old regular horse better, says Hollywood Bet is like a haven for people his age to pass time.  “It’s a clubhouse for us.  Much better than sitting in a tavern back in the townships because here, we not only spend but we also gain something out of our winnings and we have sober conversations” says Bab’(father) Thwala.

Slot machine people line up in short lines, sneering at each other when the person on the machine doesn’t give them a chance.  Some people are infamous at Hollywood for tendencies to occupy two machines at a time or using one machine the whole day.

In his worst days,*Abel loses about R2 000 on average per day on the lucky numbers game but he keeps coming back over and over again.  An insider confided that he had won an amount of over R35 000 more than once.

ACTION SPORT: Punters watching weekend sport action on television screens to see for themselves the outcome of their bets.

Who’s who in the city?

The most popular in terms of numbers and vibrancy is Hollywood Bet at Newtown Mall, corner Plein and Harrison Streets.  There is also Betting World at corner Rissik and Lilian Ngoyi Streets.  U Bet is on Plein Street, between Wanderers and Eloff Street. There is Sports Bet on Jeppe and Polly Streets as well as World Sport Betting on Pritcherd and Troye Streets.

You can see more women than you could see in both Hollywood and Betting World combined.  Violet thinks the setting at U Bet is more conducive than its competitors.  “I used to go to Betting World, but that place is so crowded, the situation there is tense and there is this stink of smelly shoes and armpits of some men who jam that place”, says Violet as she frowns showing sullen displeasure about the kind of environment in question.

At U Bet, there is more interaction and courtesy for one another.  People gather in small groups chatting, giggling and swapping coins, betting tickets and pens.  The space is a social centre for Sihle where she meets and mingle with birds of a feather.

Gamblers, mostly at U Bet regularly “bank” numbers as groups of at least four members on a single bet, with each person putting forward their lucky number.  Should they win in this instance, they split the money equally amongst all the participating members.

It is hard to spot by chance someone who has just won in some of these houses.  But most regular male gamblers are notorious for flaunting at their counterparts when they’ve won big.

These gambling spaces are crowded by people traditionally viewed as working class or not wealthy.  Security guards and police officers are the most visible in their branded uniforms whereas domestic workers, cashiers, cleaners, mineworkers, small business owners, pensioners go about without much visibility.  They all come from different townships ranging from Soweto, Tembisa, Katlehong, Daveyton, Alexandra, Kagiso and so forth.  Depending on age, they all dress up differently, with youth mostly wearing sports brands in shoes and fashionable clothes like DH, Guess, and the like.  The older generation wear their semi-formal wear or golf Ts and tukkies.

The daredevils on the streets

Outside these spots, are informal groupings of illegal gamblers either playing dice or three cards or three caps.  Most of them are lining up on Plein Street.  There is always noticeable presence of young men rolling a dice by Attwell Gardens Park.  The game is played with two dices and each player must get the two pieces show the same number of dots at the top.

Three cards has been a popular game in Johannesburg for quite some time.  The owner of the cards is the only one who dictates things by shuffling three cards (two have blue colour and one is red) with other players expected to point the red one.  The cards are in black pouches and before every shuffle the player show all the colours to show fellow gamblers.  A minimum of R100 is supposed to be placed on top of the red card.  If you get it wrong, you lose the R100 but if you’re right, you get a R100 in addition to yours.

There is also a more dodgy game by unscrupulous gangs in town and that is three caps.  It is played much like three cards.  There is a little clod that is hidden underneath one of the three 2 litre bottle caps and gamblers have to point the correct cap after a long and quick shuffle.

Most people are tricked to get into the game and never allowed to leave if they have won a few games.  Next to Bree Taxi Rank, last week, a lady in her mid-30s was enticed by one of the female gang members to partake in this game and she ended losing R200, and her cell phone confiscated as she was trying to win back atleast a R100 to get her home.

In the National Responsible Gambling Programme research paper by Leanne Scott and Graham Barr, they concluded that dice and cards were perceived as being “fairer” and allowed punters to be in control than casino gambling.

“Police are regularly and routinely bought off” reads the paper about illegal gambling.  Johannesburg Central Police Station Spokesperson Xoli Mbele could not be reached for a comment.

Gambling a tad too much

Mashudu Netshivhungululu, a registered counsellor for the National Responsible Gambling Programme, said gambling problem is a mental illness.  “It’s a psychological problem, and the behaviour of people with gambling problems doesn’t make sense.  Gambling addiction falls under mental disorder on the DSM 4 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 4).  One of the symptoms that reflect a gambling problem is someone who feels a need to gamble with the increasing amount in order to achieve the desired excitement.

“When you play, it’s like something is pulling you.  Gambling has got a spirit of its own,” says Violet.  The quest for money never stops.