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Russia is a pretty big poker market and like many things in Russia the situation surrounding online poker is, well, complicated. So if you live in Russia or are looking to market online poker related things to Russians, or are just interested in what the online poker scene is these days in Russia, I’ll provide to you my take on things here.
Saying Russians like to gamble is a lot like saying Russians like to drink vodka, and they don’t just tend to drink a little vodka, and they also don’t tend to just do a little gambling.
Throughout the Soviet regime, from 1928 onward, gambling was banned in Russia and in other countries in the Soviet bloc. It wasn’t until 1989 that the Russian government finally permitted gambling, and it sure took off in popularity. (1)
Gambling in Russia continued to grow for many years, and this came to be seen as a major social problem, leading to what was perceived as a very high rate of addiction to gambling, as well as spawning a lot of other problems such as poor attendance in school and widely increasing the opportunity for money laundering. (2)
So Vladamir Putin stepped in and in 2009 banned gambling in Russia once again, except for in 4 isolated regions of the country where it was to be permitted under certain conditions, in addition to a more recent attempt to permit Crimea to offer it as well, which would be a fifth region should that get off the ground.
So we now have regulation of sorts in Russia, at least in these approved gaming zones, but as may be expected when you look at where these regions are located, people aren’t exactly lining up to open casinos in these areas.
In spite of this, there is at least some hope that Russian land based gambling will rise again, and there’s been a lot of focus on looking to promote the gaming region in Crimea as it’s closer to the Western European market, although things in Crimea haven’t exactly been stable lately, and there’s also hope that their far eastern region may flourish some day due to being closer to the Asian market.
In any case, land based gaming in Russia has pretty much been sent to the mat, and while no one has thrown in the towel yet, we’ll have to see if it can ever really get back on its feet again. This has all cost the Russian government some real tax revenues, and that may cause them to loosen things up as the years go by and they continue to have to get by without this additional revenue.
Russian Online Poker Laws
The gambling laws in Russia are actually pretty straightforward when it comes to land-based gaming, and it doesn’t really get any simpler than it’s just not allowed outside these 4 gaming regions.
When it comes to online gambling though things haven’t been so clear cut, and although they did pass a law in 2006 banning online gambling, it wasn’t clear at all whether this applied to poker, and poker was seemingly given special status being a game of skill.
Russians played online poker with a fervor though after the law was passed and initially it really didn’t have any effect on it at all. (3) However, Russian officials ended up requiring internet service providers to block access to gambling websites, including poker websites, which doesn’t necessarily mean that playing poker online in Russia is illegal but it certainly indicates a strong will of the government to prevent it.
Initially, internet service providers resisted this interference for the most part, and the situation ended up going to the Russian Supreme Court which decided that the government does indeed have the power to require these gambling sites be blocked and also has the right to punish internet service providers for non compliance.
So now we have a blacklist so to speak and this has indeed affected access to online poker sites by Russians although people are still finding workarounds to this and it does not prohibit anyone actually playing at an online poker room if they have already downloaded the software, as many Russian online poker players already have. Also, in spite of all of this, the blockage of these sites is said to be far from universal and total, so there is still some access at present.
The Future Outlook of Russian Online Poker
There have been a few online poker sites that have pulled out of the Russian market as of late, but it’s not been concern with Russia that has prompted this, it’s more likely that looking to conform to the new U.K. licensing requirements which prohibit poker sites from getting more than a small amount of their business from so called grey markets, and Russia is certainly pretty grey.
Most online poker operators continue to serve the Russian market though in spite of all of this upheaval, including market leader PokerStars, who remain totally unconcerned. There are a lot of Russians that play at PokerStars and they even have a Russian Poker Series so there’s no reason to believe they are leaving the country anytime soon in spite of a major internet service provider recently blocking their website. Poker Stars officials have even confirmed that their intention is to continue to serve this market as usual.
Blocking websites certainly do reduce the amount of new players but have no effect at all on existing ones, which authorities may nor may not realize, and as I say there are ways around this anyway even if you are a new player. The Russian online poker market continues to thrive and probably will continue to do so in the coming years.
There does seem to be a movement afoot to consider online poker regulation in Russia, with high level officials in the Russian government, including first deputy prime minister Igor Shuvalov being open to the idea and actually having several government departments look into the possibility of legalizing this. (4)
This seems to be driven by a desire to grab some extra tax revenue and therefore it might have a chance of passing at some point down the road. Whatever scheme is devised would be in addition to the present options given that the government is already doing their best to shut those down so while regulating this does come with some restrictions on unlicensed play, we already have that in Russia now and these measures aren’t really that effective anyway.