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While Israel does have legal gambling, it’s far from wide open here by any means, and in fact it’s quite restricted overall. Still though, it’s located in an area of the world, the Middle East, where there are a lot of very conservative Islamic countries which allow very little or no legal gambling, and some don’t have much gambling to speak of going on in their country, legal or otherwise, so compared to those, Israel is fairly progressive.
The legal gambling options here include both the lottery and state-run sports betting, and it’s actually a little curious that they allow sports betting but no poker, we can imagine that casino games could be seen as more games of chance and perhaps more predatory, given that there is very little or no skill involved, and the odds are stacked against players who are destined to lose money over time regardless.
Poker on the other hand is certainly a game where skill plays a significant role, especially in the long run, as luck evens out over time and one’s results become achieved due to the amount of skill a player has at playing the game.
Sports betting is also a game of skill predominantly, and there doesn’t appear to be a good reason why this is allowed and poker isn’t, based upon principle at least, and the real reason may be that it’s just easier for the government to roll out sports betting rather than poker, although it may be the case that poker is simply viewed as a less desirable form of gambling.
The lottery is very popular here, run by a state-run company called Mifal HaPayis, which was set up in 1951 to help build a new hospital in Tel Aviv, and is still going strong today, with annual revenues of about $4 billion. (1)
The Israeli Sports Betting Council oversees the sports betting side of things, and this is rolled out through two separate offerings, Toto, the original sports betting company set up in 1968, which is now quite behind the times and only offers weekly betting, and Winner, the more modern sports book which allows fixed betting on sports on a day to day basis, like commercial sports books do. (2)
Both of these operations offer both land based and online wagering, and they are the only two companies in Israel that are specifically permitted to offer online betting. All other gambling operations, besides these two forms, are prohibited by law from being offered either at a brick and mortar location or online.
Israeli gambling law does not specifically refer to online gambling, as the section of the Israeli Penal Code that applies was written back in 1977, before online gambling even existed, but based upon the rulings of the courts here, the law is being interpreted as applying to online gambling as well.
Israel does have a total of 4 casinos though, but the gambling all occurs onboard ship outside the jurisdiction of the government of Israel, and all sail out of Eilat. The government has been considering changing the laws and building a land-based casino in Eilat as well, but this has yet to be approved. (3)
Playing Poker in Israel
Israel used to have online gambling sites that were based out of the country, in the early days of online gambling, and this was a time where it wasn’t exactly clear whether or not this was permitted under law, but almost all of these sites became shut down by the Attorney General of Israel back in 2005.
There was one site though that wasn’t shut down by the government, an online backgammon site, even though other online backgammon sites were closed. The explanation given for not shutting down Israel based backgammon site Play 65 was that the site was “the unique circumstances of the site’s activity,” although that didn’t do much to clarify things. (4)
The fact that they are open to looking the other way toward a backgammon site is at least a start, and perhaps some day the unique circumstances of some online poker sites might be seen to qualify as well. It’s more likely that an actual change in the laws here is going to be needed to one day see licensed and regulated online poker in this country.
So there’s no live poker rooms in Israel either, and the cruise ship casinos don’t offer it either, as they do offer casino poker but no forms like Texas Holdem or Omaha where players compete against one another, rather than against the house, in formats such as Caribbean Poker.
There are some home games that run here and there is at least one decently large underground poker club in Tel Aviv, but you really need to have the right contacts to even find places like this, so only those who are really motivated and don’t mind the risk of playing at illegal poker games are going to become involved. (5)
Other than that, players can play at one of the online poker sites that are located in other countries. Unlike other countries in the Middle East, poker is very popular in Israel and it’s estimated that 500,000 Israelis play the game. Given the very limited options for live poker here, almost all of this occurs online.
Online Poker in Israel?
Players from Israel are welcome at all of the major online poker sites, in spite of the fat that the Israeli government clearly prefer that they confine their online gambling to the two government run sports betting sites, and therefore that they play no poker at all online, since they don’t offer it.
Israeli authorities have tried to block online gambling and online poker websites, as governments tend to do elsewhere, and the ISPs who were ordered to do this ended up refusing, and the matter went to court. In the end, the Supreme Court ruled that the authorities do not have the authority to block these websites, so for now at least, online poker players in Israel continue to have access to their favorite online poker sites.
The Israeli government responded by discussing a bill that would provide them with this authority to block these sites, but nothing has been passed as of yet, and when it does, we’ll still have to see whether the courts allow it.
Poker is felt in Israel to be primarily a game of luck rather than skill, and this has likely played a role in their not being too fussy about allowing it, putting it in the same class as casino betting. Should this view loosen up, or their view toward gambling loosen up, we may one day see regulated online poker in Israel, although given the fact that players can play all they want anyway, so at the present time at least, it really doesn’t matter when.
For the time being, the only legitimate poker site that I would recommend playing at would most likely be PPI Poker, which accepts Israeli’s and offers 35% rakeback to ALL players. They also have the lowest deposit fees at any poker skin on the GG Network. It was founded by poker players and also run by veteran iGaming businessman.