Russia May Soon Legalize Online Poker

Online poker might soon be legal again in Russia, a nation in which the game was outlawed five years ago. According to media reports, First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov is spearheading an inquiry into the effects of Internet poker legalization. And he has tasked three of the Russian Federation’s ministries — Economic Development, Finance, and Justice — with studying this issue. Members of those bodies will formally report their findings to Shuvalov on July 21, 2014.

Russian authorities are not considering the legalization of any other form of Internet gaming at this time. Even so, if Russia were to start permitting its citizens to play digital poker, it would be a boon for online casinos all over the world. It would also be profitable for the Russian government. During the first year of legal online poker in Russia, the federal government would stand to gain between $58 million and $87 million — or 2 to 3 billion rubles — by taxing the game’s participants and organizers. Within four years, the government would likely collect from online poker an annual sum of $146 million — or 5 billion rubles.

Russia’s prohibition of Internet poker came in June 2009. That month, the Russian Ministry of Sport categorized poker as a form of gambling; since 2007, it had deemed poker a sport. Officials decided upon this new classification after discovering that many Russian poker clubs were setting up illegal gambling activities for their patrons.

It appears, however, that Russian popular opinion does not support the notion that poker is a type of gambling. Indeed, a 2013 poll that was released by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center may benefit the cause of Russian online poker legalization. This poll found that 52 percent of Russian adults support legal Internet poker whereas just 24 percent of them are opposed. What’s more, 42 percent of Russians believe that players’ skill and intelligence levels determine the outcome of a poker game while 25 percent think that chance is the deciding factor.

The fact that Russian leaders are now thinking about legalizing Internet poker is the result of one person’s initiative. Kakha Kakhiani is the president of an organization called the Poker Union, and Kakhiani asked the Russian Finance Ministry to consider the advantages of online poker. In making his pitch, he cited the impressive records that professional Russian poker players have earned over the course of many years, and he suggested that there was much international prestige to be gained if Russian players took part in the Internet form of the game.

The news that Russia may once again sanction Internet poker comes at a time when the nation seems to be hardening its stance against online gaming in general. In fact, in March 2014, Russian officials placed almost 600 websites on the nation’s list of banned domains, and approximately 50 of these blacklist entries are sites that offer some kind of gambling. Thus, Russian Internet service providers (ISPs) have since blocked access to those sites. And if a Russian ISP failed to do so, it would risk the loss of its license. These moves represent Russia’s most sweeping action against online gambling to date.

The Russian government introduced its registry of banned websites in 2012. The initial intention was to block sites that help people conduct such crimes as the selling of narcotics. In addition, the government obstructed websites that spread what it considers to be extremist political messages. Then, in November 2012, the Russian Supreme Court ruled that merely providing access to information about illegal activities is against the law.

On the basis of that ruling, Maxim Ksenzova, the deputy head of Roskomnadzor — which is the body that supervises Russian media — was obligated to start banning gambling-related domains. Some of those websites belong to international gaming companies while others represent small, regional outfits. Consequently, thousands of Russian citizens who regularly played online poker found themselves unable to continue that pursuit. And countless Internet poker games as well as tournaments involving players from across the globe were suddenly missing players. Of course, those absent players might be returning to the action sometime soon.

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