Bizarre Bridge Games

568In a unique case, Pattaya bridge club, founded in 1994, was raided on February 3 and all 30 members playing there were arrested for gambling. The raid on rented premises on Thappraya Road, Pattaya, was not conducted by police but by the Department of Provincial Administration (DOPA) of the civilian licensing and registration authority known locally as the Banglamung District Office. They were accompanied by several army troopers. Officials had been given a tip-off by an informant that illegal activities were occurring there. Local media are reporting that the informant was a dismissed former staff member of Alto restaurant where the bridge club is based.

The DOPA could not find any evidence of cash being gambled but believed that the club’s offline computer, used for scoring, was somehow linked to nefarious activities. They also seized the club’s equipment and hundreds of packs of playing cards, not apparently aware that everything found there is typical of any duplicate bridge club in the world. DOPA was also not satisfied that the club’s operating licence, issued by the Bangkok-based Contract Bridge Association of Thailand, was valid in Pattaya and also believed there were technical offences under an act of 1943 relating to the number and type of packs of cards.

The 30 arrested players, none under 55 years of age and including several in their 80s, had to wait two hours before being shuttled in baht buses to the Pattaya police station for processing. They were not consigned to the cells but led to a large office on the top floor for a confinement of a further 10 hours. Water was provided after several hours but no food, although a local 7-Eleven convenience store was allowed to bring snacks to those who purchased them. Elderly members requiring regular medication were not given a concession although the oldest member, aged 84, was allowed to leave the premises two hours earlier than everyone else.

All members were fingerprinted and had mugshots taken as part of the due process. They were also told to sign lengthy confessions in Thai, not translated, and did so after being advised by a lawyer they could change their plea in court the following morning. After paying bail of 5,000 baht each, they were allowed to leave the police station at 3:15 am and told to reassemble at 10:30 the following morning for onward transportation in a police van to Pattaya court. One lady in her 60s refused to sign a confession or to pay bail but was released later after another member contributed the sum on her behalf.

On the following morning, members were told to wait to board the police van but no instruction was forthcoming and, after two hours, everyone was told to go home. This unexpected turn of events was likely influenced by the Pattaya police superintendent’s unease when he examined the paperwork. His officers, after all, had not been involved in the raid in the first place. Additionally, Khunying Chodchoy Sophonpanich, president of the Contract Bridge Association of Thailand, travelled down from Bangkok to explain to local officials how bridge clubs all round the world actually operated. Thus, bridge club members were never formally indicted in the court.

They are, nonetheless, still on police bail pending a final decision by the public prosecutor. He had given the police a further month to prepare new documentation which involved all members attending the police station singly or in groups. Barry Kenyon, the club’s founder and one of those arrested, said, “It was all very friendly and polite. We were asked to sign a new statement (not a confession of guilt) and to sign our mugshot photos. Our passports and driving licences were returned but not yet our bail money. This is because everyone is waiting for the public prosecutor to sign off all cases against the accused.” Barry added that he expected all bail money to be returned before the end of this month. “The matter is in the hands of the prosecutor. You can’t hurry the Orient.”

However, the club president, Jeremy Watson, 74, may be in a rather different position. He was singled out by DOPA as the key offender and had to pay bail of 80,000 baht. It is possible that Jeremy may still be charged over the question of the club licence and/or technical offences under the card playing act of 1943. If so, the charges will be fought as the club believes that the licence, issued by the Contract Bridge Association of Thailand, is valid and that a 1960 exemption excused duplicate bridge from the 1943 act. The public prosecutor has two months now to decide whether to bring these charges: nothing to do with gambling which has now been dropped from the agenda. If he does file charges the case could literally take years, as short hearings are held with long gaps (sometimes several months) between them and witnesses heard in lengthy rotation. Khunying Chodchoy, who is president of the Bangkok Bank, and Barry Kenyon, a former official of the British embassy, have both indicated they will appear in Jeremy’s defence, if the charges persist.

In the days following the mass arrests, the news went viral on both Thai and international media of all types. The story made headline news in UK, America, Australia and Scandinavia. Khunying Chodchoy said she was very concerned that the arrests would deter quality tourists from coming to Thailand, not to mention the fact that visitors attending bridge congresses in Thailand may now feel threatened and believe that the country is unsafe for them. Barry Kenyon added, “The unbelievable amount of publicity this story has generated was initially created by our accusers who brought along the local media to ensure lots of publicity for the arrests.” That has certainly happened.

PS – Police later confirmed that the members’ bail money can be refunded to them in advance of the original deadline.

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