The online poker industry has taken its share of hits in the past few years. As regulations make it tougher to offer services in various parts of the world, online poker companies have suffered without the lucrative global dot-com market at their fingertips.
As the largest online poker company in the world, PokerStars undoubtedly took the worst of it. Amaya has a responsibility as a publicly-traded company and made some tough executive decisions this year as it departed some big markets like Israel and Slovenia due to crackdowns by those governments. Gambling laws that were previously deemed ambiguous became clearer, and Amaya pulled PokerStars and Full Tilt from several countries.
More moves may be in the works. As other countries begin to establish licensing frameworks or enforce ever-tightening rules on internet gambling, PokerStars may need to exit more countries in the coming year. At the same time, however, there is one market welcoming the company back.
PokerStars Permitted Again in Portugal
In July 2015, PokerStars departed the Portuguese market as the country enacted new online gambling laws to regulate the market. The licensing process was to begin later that year, and PokerStars was determined to obtain approval for the market, but it was a tough decision to exit yet another European country, especially with the segregated markets of Italy, France, and Spain taking a toll on the dot-com bottom line.
However, complying with the laws of Portugal was the only way to ensure a good relationship with the regulator. And it worked, as the regulator – Servicos de Regulacao e Enspecao de Jogos (SRIJ) – just awarded its first online poker license to PokerStars under Amaya’s subsidiary company entitled REEL Europe Limited.
Estamos de volta. pic.twitter.com/xuhYuXGLKW— PokerStars Portugal (@PokerStarsPT) November 29, 2016
PokerStars is now prepared to launch its services to the new and segregated Portuguese market under a dot-PT domain to offer tournament poker, Hold’em and Omaha cash games, blackjack, and French roulette, all for Windows and Mac on desktop and iOS and Android as mobile options. PokerStars has agreed to all of the regulatory and licensing components of the law, as well as the requirement to segregate Portuguese player funds under trust agreements.
In the press release, Amaya noted that it intends to respect the closed liquidity market for online poker but will “actively work with applicable Portuguese authorities to further develop and enhance the Portuguese regulatory framework that ensures rigorous consumer protection and gaming integrity.” The government of Portugal has considered sharing liquidity with fellow European Union members, and with France, Spain, and Italy in talks to share player pools in the future, Portugal could opt into those discussions as well. PokerStars is likely to support and even encourage that move.
Australia May Force PokerStars Out
One of the most prominent markets for PokerStars has been Australia, so much so that the company sponsored the Australia New Zealand Poker Tour and the Asia-Pacific Poker Tour for a time, both making numerous annual stops in Australian casinos and card rooms. Aussie players comprise approximately 2.5% of PokerStars’ poker revenue. But that may all change in the coming months.
Please dont take pokerstars away from me in australia. PPLLLEEEAAASSEE!!!— Aaron blanch (@AaronBlanch21) November 18, 2016
The Australian parliament is now considering an amendment to the Interactive Gambling Act of 2011, one that will make all online gambling illegal. Currently, the market is considered a grey one with ambiguous laws that don’t specify the legality of online poker or casino games. The amendment could become law in early 2017 and render PokerStars and other companies as illegal offshore operators.
Should that happen, Amaya has committed to pulling PokerStars and Full Tilt from the market. Amaya CFO Daniel Sebag confirmed the stance in the most recent earnings call, saying that the proposed legislation is being reviewed. “At this time,” he said, “it would appear likely that if the legislation passes, we would block players from Australia.” As a public company, no alternative seems viable.
PokerStars seems to have been preparing for this possibility for some time, as it announced as far back as August that it would no longer sponsor the Aussie Millions at the Crown Melbourne. In addition, other changes regarding regional tours leaves the Asia-Pacific Poker Tour ending, which just stopped in Melbourne in October. A long-standing relationship between PokerStars and Aussie players may be ending and leaving many players without online poker options.
Any Other Changes in the Works?
It is too early to say. However, there are a number of options that may change everything for Amaya.
If David Baazov is successful in his bid to purchase Amaya, the company would no longer be accountable to shareholders and regulations associated with being a publicly-traded business. Baazov may choose to take risks by offering services without proper licensing or simply playing a more forceful role with regulators in various parts of the world.
The European market could change if countries like Spain, France, and Italy decide to move forward with liquidity sharing. The move could certainly set a precedent for other countries to follow suit and regulate but still offer lucrative games for players.
Other markets remain very fluid, as Canada and Mexico have yet to clarify their online poker laws. In addition, the United States may be willing to cater to Sheldon Adelson and outlaw all online gambling under the new Trump administration in 2017. It is too early to tell which way any of these countries will go with regard to internet gambling.
Stay tuned, as 2017 could be an exciting and/or tumultuous one for Amaya and PokerStars.