Gambling is one of the oldest pastimes in Bulgaria
Issue 39-40, December 2009 - January 2010
by Gergana Manolova
The desire to try your luck is probably as old as humankind. Bulgarian lands were no exception. When they begin excavating a prehistoric settlement or a necropolis, archaeologists can bet for certain that they will find at least one clay astragal. These small, cube-shaped objects were usually a perfect imitation of a tiny bone in the ankle and in antiquity people used them as dice, for games of chance.
In Varna's Chalcolithic necropolis, where the world's oldest gold artefacts were unearthed in the 1970s, there was even a gold astragal. According to one of the theories, it was put there because in the past kings were chosen by casting lots. According to Herodotus, every five years the Thracians sent a messenger to their god Zalmoxis bearing their requests. This messenger was chosen by lot out of the whole nation. Then the "lucky" man was tossed onto spears sticking out of the ground.
Roman soldiers in Bulgarian lands also played dice and the excavations in Aqua Calide, an area with ancient mineral baths near Burgas, revealed several gaming pieces and dice from the 2nd Century AD. In the Middle Ages, Bulgarians continued tossing dice – for pleasure and for gain, although their behaviour aroused the disapproval of the church.
In the 19th Century, cafés played a decisive role: Bulgarians quickly discovered that they were suitable places not only for discussing politics and the latest gossip, but also for playing backgammon, dice and cards. The Bulgarian state tried to ban games of chance in the very first years after it was established in 1878. The parliament declared these activities illegal twice: in 1896 and 1928. In both cases, their efforts were in vain. Gaming continued at people's homes, at parties with friends or in clubs. This was hardly surprising. Officially, the state had banned gambling, but unofficially, it supported it. Under the Communist regime, contradictions increased further. Although gambling was not in line with the official Marxist doctrine, there were at least seven casinos in the larger cities. They were almost inaccessible for the ordinary Bulgarian, because their objective was to entertain foreign guests of the Establishment.
Everything changed in the early 1990s. A poll from those days showed that only 10 percent of Bulgarians were against games of chance. It is understandable: in those years of economic instability and unemployment a good number of people hoped they might suddenly become rich with a streak of good luck. The market responded to this demand: illegal gambling soon appeared, mainly in the form of street games of the thimblerig type, whose aim was not to give a large cash prize to the fools who believed the hustlers, but to fleece them of their money.
The belatedly-adopted Bulgarian gambling act appeared in 1999. It was out-of-date the moment it was born, because it did not include Internet gambling. According to the Interior Ministry, in 2008 the Internet sites offering card games, sports betting and online lotteries deprived the revenue of 30 million euros through non-payment of profit taxes. The state and the gambling industry were last at daggers drawn at the end of November, when the tax on such activities was raised from 10 to 15 percent. According to the government, this increase would lead to more revenue for the budget, while according to the business, it would direct some of the cash flow to the grey sector of the economy.
At present, the country has more than 20 legal casinos. Besides their regular clients, they also attract tourists from countries where gambling is illegal, for example Israel, where groups of tourists are organised and travel especially for this purpose. Recent forecasts show that the number of Russians is expected to increase too. Prime Minister Putin has imposed a ban on gambling in his country, with the exception of four holiday resorts, and there is information that some Russian casinos have decided to move their activities to Bulgaria.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers