E-sabong set to make a comeback

EYES WIDE OPEN - Iris Gonzales - The Philippine Star

E-sabong isn’t dead, says Charlie “Atong” Ang, the gambling netherworld’s Lord of the Ruweda.

It is merely suspended, but when it resumes it will be more regulated and the fights will no longer be round-the-clock, says Ang, the country’s biggest e-sabong operator. How and when this will happen isn’t clear yet, especially with the government in transition.

But for sure, Ang says, our COVID-19-ravaged economy will need the taxes from e-sabong, a live-streamed version of cockfighting, the country’s oldest pastime.

In this world, the roosters are the ones that lay the golden eggs.

Before Duterte suspended e-sabong early this month due to its social costs, Ang’s Pitmasters platform paid P135 million in monthly tax to Pagcor, according to a Bloomberg report. It collected P2 billion to P3 billion a day, of which 95 percent went to winning bettors and the rest, to Ang and his agents, the report also said.

Stakeholders are eager to resume, as fired up perhaps as the blood-hungry fighting cocks.

Social disaster

Critics, however, will not be happy with the return of e-sabong. It destroys lives, they say.

But Ang, 63, is ready to defend e-sabong in any court, even before God. The gambling tycoon prays everyday without fail and he does it with a clear conscience.

Losing a few thousand pesos won’t make the poor poorer, he believes, but for as little as P100, they have the chance to make their lives even just a bit better.

Scoffing at those who say young people are addicted to the online craze, Ang says that as with cigarettes and liquor, it is really up to the guardians to keep the kids away from vices.

Besides, Ang says, his Pitmaster Cares Foundation has spent nearly a billion to help those in need.

Big money

Some speculate Ang has raked in so much from e-sabong that his home vaults are already bursting at the seams.

But the gambling kingpin, guided by his own code and dictum, dismisses all this talk about big money.

If one wants to talk about big money and thievery, he says sternly, one should look at the country’s unscrupulous lawmakers, politicians, and the wheeler-dealers in every administration.

They are the ones gambling away the country’s future with their insatiable greed, says Ang, who in his hoarse voice, sounds like Vito Corleone, the mafia boss in The Godfather.

Wag the dog

The investigation against his business, he says, was orchestrated by corrupt officials acting on behalf of competitors who want him out of the picture.

It was also meant to distract the public from more pressing issues, he says. He has repeatedly denied any involvement in the cases of the missing sabungeros, insisting they are drug-related.

This is the truth, he says over dinner, and he is ready to name names in any investigation.

I listen intently to his story. We are seated across each other at a long wooden table in a posh private dining room with drop lights and lipstick-red seats.  Outside the room is a dimly-lit bar with the finest collection of drinks. His bodyguards, probably with handguns at the ready, are by the entrance. It feels like I’m inside a neo-noir action film. Or in Manila’s version of HBO’s Yakuza-centered Tokyo Vice. I wonder if some enemy’s hired goons would suddenly storm the room–out for blood, guns blazing and all. Perhaps, I’ve been watching too many gangster films.

But Ang, tall and buffed, seems relaxed, exuding a devil-may-care vibe. Money doesn’t seem to be an issue or an addiction for him and he has no other vice except, of course, games of chance. He doesn’t smoke or drink.

His only obsessions, it seems to me, are dark short-sleeved t-shirts and the latest Yeezys...and taking care of his 92-year old mother, Mama Taling.

His mother’s gangster

Indeed, Atong Ang may strike strangers as a sullen gangster, but he is his mother’s gangster–a quintessential Mama’s Boy and proud of it. This filial son lives close to his Mama who calls him everyday without fail.

During our dinner, in fact, he and his Mama went on a video chat and Mama Taling, upon seeing Atong taking big bites, quickly reminded her son to eat moderately. “Liitan mo yung subo mo!” The room burst into laughter.

Now that e-sabong can’t operate yet, Atong is able to spend more time with his mother. He grew up helping her, a Chinese merchant who used to sell a hodgepodge of goods to wet market vendors around Metro Manila – from cooking oil to chicharon to pansit bihon. The stall owners always loved seeing Taling’s fair-skinned cute little boy, dazzled by his charm. They bought everything he sold – no ifs, no buts.

When he wasn’t peddling goods, the young Atong played in the rough-and-tumble streets of Mandaluyong – marbles, coin toss, spider battles, sabong. This was how he mastered games of chance and life in general.

His mother has no qualms about gambling. Atong even gifted her a slot machine.

As for e-sabong, Atong says, it will be back – not today, not tomorrow. He doesn’t say when. But in a country where anything goes, aficionados may indeed be able to watch that heart-thumping squawking of fighting roosters on their phones yet again – sooner than we think.



Iris Gonzales’ email address is [email protected].

Follow her on Twitter @eyesgonzales. Column archives at eyesgonzales.com

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