National Pastime at Center of Estrada Crisis

Filipino children start gambling young, typically placing their first wagers on spiders fighting to the death. The loser gets wrapped in a cocoon of webbing as those who backed the winner cheer wildly.

"Even 4 years old, 5 years old, they're gambling already," said Celia Domingo, manager of Merrill's Diner, which offers off-track betting on the horses at the Santa Ana Race Track. "Sometimes their bets are candies, but that's just the beginning."

Gambling is an obsession for Filipinos and also the root of their worst political crisis in years. Opposition groups are trying to impeach President Joseph Estrada in the House of Representatives over charges he accepted kickbacks from an illegal numbers game.

An Estrada ally, Sen. John Osmena, lashed out Tuesday at a separate Senate inquiry, saying critics, including influential Catholic leaders, conveniently ignore the money they rake in from bingo and other games.

"This hypocrisy is sickening," Osmena said.

But Alice Reyes, the boss of the state-run Philippine Gaming and Amusement Corp., or Pagcor, defended cash payouts from its casinos to the church as "the best way to reach the poor."

At Merrill's Diner, Domingo is well aware the house nearly always wins, but she still visits a rival shop to make her own bets.

"When I lose, I think I should have used the money for my kids or for food," Domingo said. "Eighty percent of the people here in the Philippines are against the vices. They're against it, but they love to make bets. It's very contradictory."

In one of Asia's poorest nations, everybody seems to think fortune is going to smile down on them someday.

So Filipinos constantly bet — at cockfights, on daily lottery draws, at bingo parlors, on horse races or in the nation's 11 Casino Filipino branches. The casinos feature the slot machines, baccarat, blackjack and dice games one would find in Las Vegas, though without so much glitter.

The numbers game that got Estrada into trouble is called jueteng and players don't even have to leave home to play. Boys and girls go door to door in northern provinces, promoting wagers as small as 2 cents from players trying to pick two numbers drawn at random from 1 to 37, on wooden balls taken from a rattan container.

The take is enormous, and jueteng operators reportedly stay in business by keeping officials paid off.

The crisis began when a provincial governor, Luis Singson, said he gave Estrada more than $8.6 million in jueteng money and $2.8 million from tobacco taxes.

Estrada denies the accusations and controls both houses of Congress — but calls for his resignation are growing.

Gambling permeates the scandal. Singson spends much time at the local yacht club admiring a boat he says he recently bought with winnings from a high-stakes round of mahjong — a popular Chinese table game — at which Estrada was said to have been a player.

Estrada's government launched a legal version of jueteng, with proceeds going directly into the private bank account of a friend, Charlie Ang, before they were distributed.

"I don't think there is anything wrong with that," testified Reyes, the Pagcor head.

Senators asked her for all bounced checks from top officials who lost big in casino VIP rooms over the past five years. Reyes said it could take time.

Although Pagcor is the government's No. 3 revenue source after taxes and customs duties, Estrada responded to his troubles with a sudden crackdown on legal gambling.

Estrada deployed Interior Secretary Alfredo Lim — who gained notoriety taking to the streets with an M-16 machine gun to shut down go-go bars seven years ago — to close the local jai alai courts and all Internet wagering. Meantime, officials opened yet another casino in Manila.

Estrada's campaign may resonate among Filipinos who believe gambling's evil — even if they bet themselves. But Pagcor officials predict a limited impact on gambling revenues. The agency brought in $267 million last year. The closed operations contributed only about $2.2 million.

But officials said hundreds of jobs will vanish — a painful prospect for a nation suffering chronic unemployment.

Critics would say gambling also is a chronic problem.

Mariano Salan Jr. was among dozens of Filipinos lining up on a sidewalk to bet about 20 cents on the daily lottery. Salan never misses a drawing, figuring he could win enough to open an auto supply store or a grocery.

"If you've got the money, you can start the business," said Salan, a surveyor. "I pray to God that I'll win."