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Italy has a very rich gambling history going back at least as far as the Roman Empire, where Roman soldiers were known to have played a forerunner of backgammon. The first gambling house was opened in Italy in the 17th century, as the government sought to regulate gambling by confining it to these places, which eventually became called casinos, where the term originated from. (1)
Italians are also known for inventing the game of baccarat, and a forerunner to what is now considered bingo. One thing is for sure, Italians have always loved to gamble, and this remains the case to this day.
Italian law makes a sharp distinction between gambling based purely upon luck and those which have at least some element of skill to it. There is much more permissiveness for allowing money to be wagered on games of skill in Italy, including the game of poker, which is clearly a game where skill is involved.
Part of the reason behind this is due to a feeling that pure games of skill involving players being exploited more, where if there is skill involved then players can at least influence the outcome and account for themselves more so to speak.
Italy actually had some pretty restrictive laws prior to 2006 though when it came to gambling, however since then things have really loosened up and games involving skill are no longer illegal in general, and games of pure chance are permitted as well although tightly regulated.
So Italy does have a few casinos that operate, although there are only a total of five, which is a bit surprising with a country this size, but casino games still are somewhat frowned upon and the regulators still seek to limit this sort of action to a large degree. (2)
There are only 3 places in Italy that you can play live poker at in fact, however Italy does have a pretty large online poker presence, and offers its residents access to a regulated online poker scene through its licensing of several popular online poker rooms restricted to residents of the country. (3)
Italian Regulated Online Poker
Prior to online poker regulation, Italian players just did what everyone else did, they just played online poker wherever they wanted and there was no real issues. However, as is becoming increasingly the case, governments see the amount of money that is spent on online poker and want a piece of the action, something that they cannot do when the money is flowing out of the country to poker sites located elsewhere.
So in order to tax this poker revenue, it becomes necessary to regulate it, and that’s exactly what Italy did back in 2007, being the first country to do so in fact. The Finance Act of 2007 legalized poker and other games of skill in Italy, subject to regulations.
Among these were that poker had to be confined to tournament play only, and this was the case with the original licensed Italian online poker sites, something that didn’t go over particularly well with a lot of players who sought to play cash poker online as well.
As this went on, Italian lawmakers eventually thought better of this and expanded the permitted games in 2011 to include cash poker as well. These rules also extended to other games of skill such as sports betting, which is a very popular form of gambling in Italy.
The Italian Online Poker Scene
So this provided us with the framework that we now have, where Italian online poker players now have several legal and regulated options to choose among and many are quite popular. The new relaxed regulations did promote a surge in the popularity of online poker for a time, peaking in 2012.
Things have fallen off a fair bit since then, as perhaps the novelty wore off a bit, and traffic is down about 50% from the peak then. However it still remains very viable, particularly at Poker Stars’ Italian site, which in spite of it being limited exclusively to Italian residents, it consistently ranks among the top 10 busiest poker site in the world, and at the time of this writing sits in fifth place overall, ahead of even the main Party Poker site which has always been a dominant force in the online poker world. (4)
There are several other licensed online poker rooms that serve the country of Italy, but none with anywhere near the traffic of the Poker Stars site, who have over half the Italian online poker traffic to themselves.
As is to be expected with regulated poker, rake rates do tend to be higher due to the higher levels of taxation that are involved, although given the continuing success of Italian poker, the rake certainly isn’t a big enough deal to keep people from wanting to play here, and Italian poker currently has a long track record of relative success dating back over 7 years now, so it’s not that it is new and relatively untested.
There have been some poker rooms which have struggled in Italy, like PRK did, but this is more reflective of not being able to compete enough with the competition rather than a lack of health of the market overall. Sure, Italy’s online poker numbers have declined, but so has online poker in general over this period, and while Italy’s decline is larger, it may be that it just ended up adjusting to a more normal level of interest after the early novelty wore off.
At least residents of Italy can play online with the utmost of confidence that they are not running afoul of the law in any way and in fact have the full blessing of the government in doing so, and if having to pay a little higher rake is the cost of that, which it is, it can be seen as a nice trade off.
(2) Italian Casinos