Russia consider legalising online poker

By Emma Rumney
Russia is evaluating the possibility of legalising online poker, according to the country's daily political and financial newspaper Kommersant.

After outlawing poker in 2009 it seems Russia is being swayed by the potential fiscal benefits of a regulated online market - Kommersant reported that "a source familiar with the opinions of supporters of legalised online poker" explained it could generate 2-3bn rubles ($58m-$87m) in tax revenues annually, which could potentially exceed 5bn rubles ($145m) within five years.

Based on information provided by unidentified sources within government, Kommersant reported on 3 June that first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov has instructed the Ministry for Economic Development, the Ministry of Finance, and the Ministry of Justice to analyse the economic benefits of legalisation and potential frameworks for regulation in a series of detailed reports.

The report noted that Alexei Moiseev, the deputy finance minister, Helena Lashkina, the press secretary for the Ministry of Economy and representatives of Shuvalov had confirmed they are addressing the issue.

It also said an unnamed source had told the paper that the Russian government had decided to consider legalisation following requests from the Poker Union - a claim backed-up by the Union's president Kakha Kakhiani, who confirmed he had appealed to the Finance Ministry and the government following successful performances by Russian players abroad.

Kakhiani also believes that the legalisation of poker could bring in substantial revenues for Russia.

However Kommersant made it clear in their report that the issue will not only be addressed in economic terms but also as a social issue. Public opinion will therefore be taken into account via a survey, which will impact on the final decision.

An October 2013 poll conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center found that most Russians do not associate poker with other forms of gambling: 42% of respondents saw it as an intellectual game, as oppose to 25% who disagreed, with 52% believing that people should have the right to play poker if they wanted to and 24% who did not. Some 85% of online users believed poker is intellectual, and 84% of them supported the right to play.

Pre-2009, poker play thrived in Russia and was even declared as an official sport in 2007. Poker clubs were widespread in big cities and Russian players enjoyed success at international competitions from the EPT to the WSOP.

However as part of an "anti-vice" crackdown in 2009, which also targeted smoking and underage drinking, all forms of gambling were outlawed apart from in four remotely-located legalised gambling zones away from big cities. It is thought Russia is considering creating a fifth in the recently annexed region of Crimea.

The Kyiv Post reported today that the State Duma – the lower house of the Federal Assembly of Russia – had passed the second and third readings of a bill regarding establishing gambling zones in Crimea and Sochi at a meeting on 4 July.

However for online play the 2009 ban proved largely ineffective and went unenforced for a few years. A number of legal rulings found that although online gambling and poker were illegal it wasn't up to the internet service provider (ISP) to restrict access to them.

Then in 2012 the Supreme Court overturned such decisions, strengthening the laws and encouraging ISPs to proactively block Russian citizens' access to "illegal content" by threatening their licences.

Later in March 2014, following a request from the prosecutor's office, Russian authorities updated the country's internet blacklist with an additional 600 websites as part of a crackdown against online gambling.

Russia's ISPs blocked access to a many large, international online poker sites including PokerStars, PartyPoker, Unibet and Titan Poker.

Now, only a few months on, Russia is at least considering overturning the five-year hiatus on lawful poker play, with Kommersant reporting that the three ministries have been instructed to complete their reports by 21 July.
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