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Latvia has had legalized gambling since the early 1990’s, after breaking free of the control of the Soviet Union. As was so often the case, one of the first things that former Soviet countries did when they achieved their independence was to start allowing gambling, something seriously frowned upon by the communist regime as being too capitalist.
In their enthusiasm to allow gambling upon gaining their independence, as was also often the case, the laws regulating it didn’t come until a few years later, and gambling simply sprung up and let the market regulate it for awhile.
However, in 1998, the Latvian Lotteries and Gambling Supervisory Inspection was created, which was set up to oversee and license all gambling activity in Latvia. So licenses ended up being issued at that time for land based gambling, to 17 different operators, and today almost 200 million Euro is spent on land based gambling by Latvians, across 5 casinos and 327 gambling halls. (1)
Most of the land based gambling action in Latvia is from slot machines, and there are almost 10,000 slot machines in the country, a pretty amazing amount considering this is a country of only two million people. From this we can gather that Latvians really like to gamble in general, and while poker isn’t quite as big here as it is in some other countries, there is at least a pretty good potential poker market given Latvians’ penchant to bet.
As far as playing live poker goes, they do have 3 casinos which offer live poker, with a total of 17 poker tables, and this isn’t bad at all for a country this size, and does show that poker is something Latvians are at least somewhat fond of. (2)
All of Latvia’s land based gambling sites are fully licensed and regulated these days and players can play there all they wish.
Latvia’s Online Gambling Regulation
Latvia was way ahead of the game as far as regulating online gambling, and has ahd regulation in place since 2003, being one of the first countries in the world to do so. There are still a lot of countries in Europe that are still playing around with this idea and it may be several years yet before some of them manage to implement online gambling regulation, so Latvia was certainly well ahead of its time in comparison to a lot of their neighbors.
This has been quite successful as far as online casino gambling has gone, with no less than 160 sites licensed by the Latvian government to offer online gambling. These are all Latvian owned sites by the way, as the licensing requirements do require a majority Latvian ownership, which ends up shutting out the big foreign sites since they do not meet the requirement to obtain a license, even if they were interested in getting one.
As far as casino games go, there’s no real reason to prefer a foreign site over a Latvian one, especially given that the Latvian government maintains a blacklist and does attempt to prevent its people from visiting a lot of the bigger online gambling sites through blocking access at the internet provider level.
If there is a comparable option available which actually is accessible, in other words these domestic gambling sites, then this restriction can be at least decently effective. So Latvia certainly has managed to do a fairly effective job when it comes to casino games.
Online Poker in Latvia
When it comes to poker though, this has been a completely different story. There’s no way Latvia could support a workable internal domestic online poker market, as the online poker dynamic is totally different than other forms of online gambling, as this requires at least a good amount of poker traffic to be viable.
Even in places where poker is very popular, and it’s fairly popular in Latvia but not overly so, a market this size will fall short of being able to provide the traffic for even one good poker room.
So it’s no surprise really that Latvia has been unable to sustain a regulated poker market, and the only chance they would ever have to do this is to allow licenses from the bigger online poker rooms, such as Poker Stars, Full Tilt, 888 Poker, Party Poker, and so on.
These poker sites do not qualify for licenses in Latvia though, and it might even be a stretch to say that they even would be interested in getting one in this market, particularly since they already serve the market now, to a large extent anyway.
The Latvian government does know how to beat the drum though and are using all of the tools they have against these poker sites, not only blacklisting these and other major online gambling sites, but also looking to make it more difficult for Latvians to do banking transactions with them. (3)
It’s not that players are being left out in the cold with any of this though. In order to play at a poker site, the only visit you ever have to make to play at a poker room is one trip there to download the software, and those who already have the software can already play all they want as this is outside the reach of these blacklisting tactics.
Those who do not already have a copy of the poker software can simply visit the site through a virtual private network, or VPN, and there are several services online who will offer you the opportunity to try this out for free, without even signing up, and you can get the required downloads very easily with something like this, and this renders the government’s efforts to block these websites completely ineffective.
As far as getting around attempts to block financial transactions go, this can be a bit more difficult but not overly so as long as you still have access to at least one internet wallet, and this is the case in Latvia right now, as opposed to what Americans face, as they don’t have access to any of them, but even that didn’t really stop anyone who wanted to play.
We might end up seeing a better attempt at regulated online poker in Latvia, but the rules will need to change, and it comes down to looking to protect Latvian companies, and hoping that players will choose online casino games over poker so they can capture the tax revenue from their play.
If this is the case, and it probably is, it results from a fundamental misunderstanding of poker, and also an underestimation of the lengths poker players will go to in order to play their beloved game. Latvian online poker players are still playing though and there’s nor reason why they won’t continue to do so regardless.