Australia has been one of the most popular poker markets for the past decade. While the game was somewhat widespread in the 1990s and early 2000s, the poker boom boosted numbers after Chris Moneymaker’s big World Series of Poker win in 2003. But it was the 2005 World Series of Poker victory for Joe Hachem that put Australia on the poker map.
Not only did Hachem return to his home in Australia with $7.5 million for the win, his engaging personality and clear passion for poker inspired others to pick up some cards and learn to play. He continued to win poker tournaments around the world and on television, and he played online as a PokerStars-sponsored player, as well as established new live tournament series at his home casino in Melbourne.
Online poker soared in popularity in Australia, so much so that it became a target market for many online poker operators. PokerStars found so much success there that it created the Australia New Zealand Poker Tour (ANZPT), which ran for seven successful seasons.
Technically, however, it was never clear if online poker was legal in Australia or not.
Australia in Limbo
The ambiguous law under which online poker operated – and continues to do so – is the Interactive Gambling Act of 2001. That law targeted online gambling operators and prohibited real-money online games, including poker, aimed at Australian residents. However, there were numerous holes in the language that allowed poker operators to skirt the law for many years.
Many lawmakers in Australia are ready to close those loopholes and banish the online poker and casino operators once and for all. Minister of Communications Mitch Fifield and Minister of Human Services Alan Tudge are among those spearheading the movement to update the law via the Interactive Gambling Amendment Bill of 2016. This amendment to the 2001 law will make it tougher for illegal offshore providers to service Australian residents by imposing significant fines. And breaking that law would not only result in legal troubles for operators but also scar the company’s brand in the eyes of other countries and nations trying hard to adhere to strict licensing frameworks.
When parliament goes into recess for the year it's time to figure out exactly how to best lobby for the future of online poker in Australia— Oliver Gill (@capitao85) December 1, 2016
PokerStars was the first large online poker operator to signal a possible withdrawal from the Australian market due to the proposed amendment. During the third quarter conference call in November of 2016, Amaya CFO Daniel Sebag noted that the company is reviewing the legislation and its potential impact on “player-vs-player games of skill.” He followed that with, “At this time, it would appear likely that if the legislation passes, we would block players from Australia.”
@AustOnlinePoker it really is ridiculous that our power brokers keep controlling our right to play online so they can secure own coffers— Joe Hachem (@JosephHachem) January 14, 2017
As 2017 began, the executives at 888 were performing the same type of review. And 888poker acted on it, sending an email to players on January 13 to notify of the site’s impending exit from the market on January 16. “Following a business reevaluation,” the message read, “we’d like to inform you that 888poker’s services are not being offered to players residing in Australia and therefore your account will be closed as of 16/01/2017.”
While there is no word regarding other sites following suit at this time, players are gearing up for the Aussie version of Black Friday. Sites like PokerStars and PartyPoker are very likely to leave the market as well, as the new legislation seems quite likely to pass.
These decisions are not easy for any operator, especially those who consider Australia to be a significant and important market. With a population estimated at more than 24.3 million people, the exit will hurt online gaming companies, especially those with a significant focus on poker for revenue.
When companies like PokerStars and 888poker pull out of a particular market, most have hope of eventually applying for a license and reentering the market at a later date. Portugal was just one of the recent examples of a market closure ahead of legislation to regulate online poker, and PokerStars then reemerged with a license and garnered extreme popularity among Portuguese players.
This may not be the case with Australia, however, as the country seems focused solely on licensing sports betting and lotteries.
Legislation up to ban online poker in Australia. I'm gutted. One of my favourite hobbies.— Yablos (@Yablos) January 18, 2017
The short-term effect of the closure of the Australian online poker market may be limited to that region of the world, but other countries may be inspired to do the same. Governments around the world are struggling with the notion of outlawing the internet games or licensing them for revenue purposes. But the establishment of a regulatory framework is time-consuming and difficult, which could prompt some countries to ban the games altogether or only license the ever-popular sports betting industry.
The next few months are likely to show the fallout from the Australian law and its impact on other countries. Meanwhile, online poker operators are treading lightly and making very calculated decisions as they navigate the evolving world of regulation and licensing.