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Gambling was illegal in Bulgaria until 1993, however gambling had been going on there for a long time, but it was confined to the black market. With the passing of this new law by the Bulgarian government though, things were brought into the open, and casinos and gambling halls opened up around the country.
It wasn’t until 1998 though that the gambling market in Bulgaria became regulated and taxed, with the requirement that gambling operators now get a license from the government to operate, and meet licensing requirements. (1)
So this did serve to limit the land based gambling scene in the country, and there are currently 10 different casinos in Bulgaria, which is a decent amount but not exactly a free for all. These casinos mostly cater to tourists though as is often the case these days with land based casinos in some countries anyway. (2)
In addition to this there are gambling halls spread around the country which do have licenses to operate but offer gambling on a more limited basis than casinos. Very few of these smaller gambling halls offer poker though, and only 2 of the country’s casinos offer it, so live poker in Bulgaria is fairly limited. (3)
Bulgaria does offer regulated online gambling, although almost all of it consists of sports betting. Up until very recently Bulgaria has struggled with this due to some very high taxation rates, so high that operators considered them to be ridiculous, and they were.
The tax laws here called for a 15% tax on the gross receipts of bets, which really is quite absurd as the take from these bets are only a few percentage points, for instance the juice on sports bets, the house edge in casinos, and the rake in poker, and when you add 15 percent on top of that, well players just won’t go for that.
Surprisingly though, there had still been some betting going on with sports betting anyway, as perhaps some players simply don’t know better, but all but the uninitiated would avoid betting in such a framework.
In terms of poker, this would add up to a 20% rake, which any player who knew anything about how rake impacts poker would run away from.
Fortunately though the government has come to see the error of its ways, and on January 1, 2014, they relented and set the taxation rates on gambling to a much more reasonable level, which with poker translates to a 20% tax on the proceeds, on the rake itself in other words, rather than adding to the rake. (4)
So this means that rake need now only be increased by 20% to make up for this, rather than having to essentially increase it by 400% under the old tax laws. So this brings things much more down to earth and the 20% isn’t really that high at all and is pretty competitive actually.
Online Poker Attempts in Bulgaria
The government of Bulgaria has been trying to put together a workable regulatory scheme for online gambling for a few years now, and the issues weren’t just about their outrageous taxation rates, they also had trouble attracting interest due to their protectionism as well, requiring that only companies that had a presence in Bulgaria for at least 5 years be considered for licensing for online gambling.
This brought them at odds with the EU, and they have recently relented on that as well, and now accept licensees from any EU company in addition to those from Switzerland. So all it takes now is for a poker company to have an EU license and they are now eligible.
So after struggling for several years in trying to build up a regulated online scheme that was workable, practical, and attractive, and after missing the mark for the most part during this time, they have finally woken up and things actually look pretty good right now for regulated online gambling and regulated online poker in Bulgaria.
The New Online Frontier in Bulgaria
These positive changes even attracted online poker giant Poker Stars, which by itself has about half of the worldwide online poker market, in addition to a strong presence in several already regulated European countries. So once this qualified them, they applied for a Bulgarian online poker license and saw it granted, and they became the first regulated online poker site in Bulgaria in 2014. (5)
Wisely, the new Bulgarian regulations do not restrict online poker sites from offering Bulgarian players access to poker sites’ main player pool, so Poker Stars is permitted to let their players play against the rest of the .com traffic, as opposed to having to create a separate player pool of Bulgarian players only, something that likely would not have worked in a country this size, due to the limited size of the player pool.
So this is the new trend in online poker regulation and follows the lead of Belgium, Estonia, Denmark, and now the U.K., and the U.K. is even big enough to maintain their own player pool and do fairly well, although that’s been a big criticism of countries like Italy, France, and Spain, and this has caused a lot of non compliance among players who wish to not be segregated this way.
So things in Bulgaria are definitely off on the right track finally, and while Poker Stars are the only takers so far, they are big enough that it probably doesn’t matter if other major poker sites jump on the Bulgarian bandwagon or not, which they indeed may at some point.
As far as playing on the other online poker sites go, Bulgaria does maintain a pretty extensive blacklist and when Poker Stars opened up the government forgot to take them off of it and reports are that many players were unable to access the site, in spite of it being licensed. Poker Stars was quickly removed from the list though.
Many countries have tried to blacklist gambling sites with varying degrees of success but it seems that Bulgaria is among the most successful to do so and while this doesn’t stop people from playing at these poker sites, it can make it difficult to download the software, especially if you aren’t familiar with workarounds such as dynamic IP’s, where you can essentially obtain an internet address in another country which isn’t banned.
So what happens here is that your internet provider may block access to a certain website but it doesn’t block access to non gambling servers located elsewhere and you connect to the banned websites from there.
In any case, things look pretty good overall in Bulgaria and people can play at the world’s biggest online poker site by far with the full support of the government, and play on the main site as well, which is pretty nice even if that’s all you have.