Regulating Online Poker in 2018

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So far in 2018 we are witnessing the world of online poker regulation at its most fluid. Much is changing, in both a positive and negative way. The headline news right now is that John Pappas, the long-time Executive Director of the Poker Player’s Alliance (PPA), has stepped down from his post. With this big change at the forefront of the fight for online poker legalisation, it’s a good time to take a look at what’s happening around the world on this score.


John Pappas Calls it a Day

In February 2018, the announcement arrived without any warning in the form of a statement on the PPA website.

“Today, the Poker Players Alliance – the leading poker and internet gaming advocacy group – announced changes to its leadership, with continued focus on grassroots engagement. At the end of February, John Pappas will step down from his role as the organization’s Executive Director, a position he has held for more than a decade.”

The PPA has led the fight for fully legalised online poker in the USA since 2005. This is six years before Black Friday threatened to tear the industry apart, and in that time much has changed. John Pappas has unwaveringly fought our corner for all those years, but now at a time when donations are shrinking rapidly he has decided to move on and pass the reins to Vice President Rich Muny.

So, why is this important news? Regardless of which region you play your online poker in, the repercussions from Black Friday in April 2011 are still felt by all players. Almost the entire American player pool being ripped out of play overnight changed the game beyond recognition. With six years worth of experience in this niche already, the PPA was well positioned to continue the fight.

Now, nearly seven years later we can still only see three US states, Delaware, New Jersey, and Nevada, that have managed to seal the deal. On the plus side New York and Pennsylvania look to be ready to join the party, but California now appears to be out of contention. This is a major setback. It’s not that many years since California would have qualified as the world’s fourth richest economy; just think how much a booming online poker industry in the Golden State would have helped to build momentum.

Revenue is also shrinking. In New Jersey they recently hit a record low, and Delaware now has numbers so small that if the state pulled out of the market nobody would even notice.

On the plus side, Sheldon Adelson has been forced to sell the Sands Bethlehem resort for $1.3 billion. Adelson is the biggest enemy online poker has in the US, using all possible means to thwart the PPA in their efforts. Now that legal online gambling is coming to Pennsylvania he is scurrying away from that market before the brick-and-mortar scene becomes less profitable.

The overall picture is looking kind of stable now. The market isn’t thriving, but we do expect to see some other states implementing full legalisation soon. Once California dropped out of the running, Pokerstars withdrew their financial support for the PPA, and so we find ourselves looking at a future with much less potential. This is especially so with the PPA admitting that they are going to concentrate a greater proportion of their focus on sports betting from now on.


The European Situation

In Europe the situation is looking much more positive. The new shared liquidity scheme between France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal has a lot of potential. Not only to repair the damage done by the ring-fencing legislation, but also to set an example to the other regional markets. Europe is now likely to be the first area to prove that online poker can be regulated in such a way as to benefit all concerned.

The ice was broken during January 2018 when Pokerstars Europe – as the new server is called – began offering games to players in both the French and Spanish markets. Italy and Portugal, however, were dragging their feet. French outfit Winamax has announced they should be ready to join Pokerstars by April 2018, waiting on a stamp of approval from Spain. Often thought of as one of the smaller sites around, Winamax recently signed a pair of high-stakes regulars in Mustapha Kanit and Adrian Mateos to promote their brand. We can be sure that they don’t come cheap, which can only mean that the people in control see this merger of player pools as a great opportunity to push forward with as much energy as they can muster.

It’s unlikely that the European region could ever rival the kind of numbers that we saw in the US before Black Friday, but even so, after all the talk of searching for the next boom throughout Asia we might be looking in the wrong place. If, over the next few years, we see a move towards a fully integrated player pool, then Europe could well end up being by far the healthiest poker ecosystem we have ever seen.


What Happened to the Asian Poker Boom?

The last seven years has seen much yearning for a poker boom to rival what we saw post 2003, and where could be more natural to look than inside the world’s most populous nations.

India is growing as a poker nation, but there is no sign of any explosive acceleration about to happen. The country quite possibly has the most live poker leagues in the world, but the online scene hasn’t really taken advantage of the most popular online platforms. There are plenty of Indian servers available, but you can’t help feeling that they need to start and get involved with the mainstream options. After all, if their homegrown stars begin to butt heads with established world stars then it’s going to pique interest a lot more than purely a national scene.

Unfortunately, the regulation aspect is beginning to become a pain. For both live and online poker, the Indian servers and casinos are now periodically coming up against the law. Just like in the USA, the laws vary from state to state, and this situation is made even worse by how unclear the legislation is written. The crux of the matter here is that once poker is accepted as a game of skill then the path to full legalisation should be fairly clear. It’s just getting over that hurdle which is a huge problem.

China is, of course, everybody’s big hope for the next poker boom, but just like everywhere else in the world, they are starting to run into legal issues. Gambling has long been a part of the fabric of Chinese culture, even when the majority of it is considered illegal. As far as poker is concerned though, the law remains unclear.

Over the last couple of years, websites such as Natural8 have popped up with a high number of Chinese players, so we know that there is plenty of interest, it’s just that with the culture being so different compared to the west, we just can’t predict where we are on the regulation front. For now, we can at least be happy in the knowledge that more and more Chinese players are taking up the game.


Final Thoughts

The poker community has long been used to the current status quo, regarding regulation. With that in mind, it’s worth looking at the bigger picture to see realistically how much more scope for improvement we have. Right now, post European re-integration, the US is the only market that is severely affected by legal wrangling. If Russia carries on as it currently does, then it’s possible that we’re not going to see much changing over the coming years unless the Indian or Chinese market balloons unexpectedly. Australia has its problems, but we can expect that to sort itself out soon enough given the amount of interest shown by certain politicians there.

To conclude, one point stands out clearly after reviewing the regulation situation around the world. The poker community has been telling itself for years that the games are the toughest they have ever been, but yet they are still extremely beatable with a little work. Although we should all still hope to once again see a true worldwide player pool, it’s not the be all and end all of a healthy poker ecosystem. There are still plenty of good games to be found online if you look.

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