British bookies take sumo into cyberspace

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The Independent Online
A British-based bookmaker has taken to cyberspace to help the gambling- crazy Japanese overcome Draconian betting laws which forbid bets on top sports from sumo wrestling to football.

SSP International Sport Betting, which has made pounds 25,000 a week from telephone and fax wagers placed by Japanese punters since it was set up in 1989, is expecting its new Internet service to attract more than 1,000 customers a day.

The service looks like a sure win - the Japanese spend more on the sports they are allowed to gamble on than any other nation. Betting on horse- racing is four times that in Britain, and total spending in 1993 was a total of 27tn yen, nearly 6 per cent of gross national product. Two-thirds of this goes on pachinko, a strangely addictive Japanese version of pinball.

But restrictions leave Japanese gamblers with little choice of where to place their money - apart from a small-scale lottery, betting is confined to bicycle, motorbike, speed-boat and horse- racing with wagers placed on the day with a only handful of bookies run by sports associations. The great national passions, sumo, baseball and soccer, as well as casinos, are strictly off-limits.

It is this gap that SSP is hoping will lead to a big pay-day - if it is allowed to. Following a test run on the Internet last week the Japanese National Police Agency launched an investigation.

SSP is based in London, but takes bets solely from overseas. Of the 16 languages on offer, including Finnish, Chinese and Thai, Japanese is by far the most lucrative. Eleven bookmakers, including one Japanese, set the company's odds.

Favourite bets at present are the high-school spring baseball tournament, the outcome of the Oscars, and the ferocious battle between Japan and South Korea to host the 2002 World Cup (Japan is the favourite at 10 to 7 on).

But the Japanese police are interested. "Recently the Internet has been proliferating and there is much discussion of the problems that accompany it," a police spokesman said.

"This case is just one of them, and we are giving it our attention."

Eric Sedensky, who lived in Tokyo for eight years before becoming SSP's Japan development manager, said: "It is totally ridiculous. If we set up on a street corner in Tokyo we'd be arrested in a moment. But we're based in the UK, the bets are received in the UK, and they're made in cyberspace. That's it."