Amid a Tbilisi slot-parlor boom, experts believe that problem gambling is on the rise in Georgia. The gaming industry may be pouring millions each year into state coffers, but the social costs of gambling are going unmeasured.
Gaming fees generated some $8.87 million in revenue for the first seven months of 2008, the most recent period for which the government has data. State coffers receive some $6 million per year in licenses alone, according to the Ministry of Finance.
Slot parlors have proliferated in part because of relatively steep casino licensing fees (5 million lari, or just under $3 million). While Tbilisi has just two casinos, it contains over half of the country's 525 one-armed bandits, government data shows.
Avoiding slot parlors in Tbilisi these days is no easy feat. Zoning regulations do not exist. A slot parlor can be established next to churches and schools. Annual license fees stand at just 20,000 lari (about $11,886); outside Tbilisi, at a mere 12,000 lari ($7,131).
The abundance of slot clubs poses a particular risk, some local observers say. Slot machines are believed to be the most addictive form of gambling -- triggered by the release of dopamine as players wager that a jackpot is just a single orange or cherry away.
For Georgians, the problem is compounded. Official unemployment stands at 13.3 percent, but some economists estimate actual rates at well over 30 percent. For the desperate, the frustrated or the bored, slot machines hold out the promise of being an easy remedy for financial woes.
While the economic incentive for frequenting slot parlors runs strong, Georgian society does not recognize gambling as an addiction. "Only recently has drug addiction been publicly recognized [as an addiction in Georgia]," commented Eliso Amirejebi, regional coordinator for the Anti-Violence Network of Georgia, a non-governmental organization that works with treating drug addicts. "Nobody sees gambling as an addiction in Georgia yet."
Nor has any local research been done to examine the social impact of gambling in Georgia. Consequently, no one can state how many gambling addicts or problem gamblers exist in Tbilisi or in Georgia in general. But anecdotal evidence would suggest that gambling has, for many, already become a way of life.
As elsewhere, gambling addiction in Georgia often goes together with drug and alcohol addiction. Tbilisi psychologist Dr. Manana Soloxashvili, a group therapy coordinator, states that 90 percent of the patients she treats for substance abuse are also addicted to gambling. "I think gambling is worse because it's not recognized as an addiction," Soloxashvili said.
One of Soloxashvili's patients, a heroin addict, first walked into a Tbilisi slot parlor three years ago and won 40 lari (about $24). He returned daily after that, and although he has been off heroin for a year-and-a-half, he continues to play the slots.
"All I could think about was playing. Sometimes I'd start with a little money and end up winning $5,000. I'd lose it in the same day," the gambling addict, who did not wish to be identified, related. "Each day, the same thing. Today I started with two lari (about $1.19) and won 720 (roughly $429), and lost it."
Tbilisi psychologist Ana Laghidze believes that gambling addictions in Georgia stem more from certain characteristics of the society than from the pressures of a feeble economy and the quick fix that games of chance provide.
"Georgians have [a tendency] for risk-taking, a love for easy things. They are stubborn -- if not this round, then the next -- and [there is] a lack of individual responsibility," Dr. Laghidze said. "If they lose, there will always be somebody around to help bail them out."
Aleksander Kvatashidze, a freelance filmmaker, recounts shelling out for a friend's 2,000-lari (about $1,190) bet on a soccer match. The bet proved lucky, a car was bought, and then sold after the friend lost his next bet. "It took me a long time to get my money back," said Kvatashidze
Dr. Soloxashvili's patient, who made 80 lari (about $48) a day as a construction foreman before he was dismissed, also told how his co-workers would loan him money when he needed it.
A state-sponsored lottery, launched last month, helps multiply the options. The Georgian Lottery Company, part of the Hong Kong-based M.POS Group, a mobile point-of-sale technology company, expects to establish some 5,000 vendor locations nationwide.
Soon, hotels may be able to cash in on Georgians' gambling habits, too. MP Lasha Tordia, first deputy chairperson of parliament's Legal Issues Committee and a member of the governing United National Movement for a Victorious Georgia, says that a draft law under consideration will permit anyone building a 100-room hotel to open a casino without applying for an annual license. Table taxes would be frozen for two years. The law is expected to pass, he added.
Tordia sees the gambling business as a prime opportunity to generate revenue for the state. "We haven't heard about any gambling problems," he stated.
By comparison with its neighbors, Georgia is emerging as a paradise for the gaming industry. In June, Russia passed a strict zoning law that limits casinos and slot parlors to four distant regions. Armenia has also announced it intends to amend its gaming law to only permit gambling in three distant districts. Armenia currently allows gambling in an area no closer than 50 kilometers from Yerevan, and 10 kilometers from regional cities. Azerbaijan and Turkey, by contrast, have no legalized gambling.
Paul Rimple is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi. Sophia Mizante is a freelance photojournalist also based in Tbilisi.