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The Russian city of Sochi has long been a resort-based city but gained international notoriety upon hosting the XXII Olympic Winter Games in 2014. Since the boom from the Olympics died down, the Russian government had been considering various options to attract more tourists. And in 2016, Sochi agreed to create a casino complex in the newly-designated Krasnaya Polyana gambling zone, complete with a fully-functional casino “in the spirit of Las Vegas” and accompanying restaurants, bars, a theater, and other attractions.

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The Sochi Casino and Resort, located at the Gorky Gorod mountain resort, held its grand opening on January 5. And what better way to introduce it and earn new visitors than by partnering with global companies that will host events at the complex and deliver possibly thousands of new faces to the scene. While promotions have already attracted many to the casino and associated venues in the Krasnodar Krai section of Russia, its executives also lined up two significant poker events.

PartyPoker First but PokerStars Tops It

The first of the online poker sites to partner with the Sochi Casino and Resort was PartyPoker, which added it to its new PartyPoker LIVE tour schedule when it was announced in early January.

The PartyPoker Million Sochi will begin online on March 12 and host the live portion of the tournament on March 24 through March 27. The $1K buy-in tournament will have a $1 million prize pool guarantee with $200K of that promised to the winner. The tour is boasting that players will be “among the first to experience poker at the Black Sea’s five-star destination.”

As March got underway, PokerStars made an announcement of its own. As part of its Championship series, the PokerStars Championship Sochi would make a stop at the Sochi Casino and Resort from May 20 to May 31. A series of events will culminate in a 380K RUB buy-in Main Event with a guarantee of 150 million rubles, the equivalent of approximately $2.6 million.

This comes just weeks after PokerStars signed Russian-born Igor Kurganov to its Team Pro roster, and he will be one of the sponsored players attending the Championship events.

Russian Government Sends Mixed Messages

During the poker boom, online poker was as popular in Russia as anywhere else. However, the Russian government followed the United States’ lead in 2006 by banning all forms of online gambling. Even so, most online poker rooms did not exit Russia at that time due to ambiguous language in the law and no indication that the national regulator was serious about enforcement. The government went further several years later, however, by banning even land-based gambling except in four specific zones in the country, one of which was in Sochi.

In 2012, Russia’s highest court ruled that the government can order internet service providers to block websites offered by online poker and gambling operators. While companies like PokerStars didn’t officially leave the market at that time, all Russian Team Pros fell from the roster (at PokerStars) and it became a low-priority market for all online poker operators. The country’s Ministry of Finance then took it a step further this year by introducing a bill to require banks and payment processors to block all online gaming transactions with international operators. While some are still fighting for online poker to be exempted from that law, the state of the game in the majority of the country is precarious.

Of course, the live tournaments planned by PartyPoker and PokerStars will not be affected by any government or court decisions as the Sochi area is a protected gambling district. And with a strong desire to promote and grow Sochi into a global gambling destination, the companies are being welcomed with open arms. And many players from Russia and beyond are likely to flock to the new tour stop as a variation from the usual locales and the chance to see a different part of the world.

However, many Russian players may find it hard to qualify for the tournament online through satellites if their ISPs don’t allow them to access the sites. And should then even try and be successful, should they worry about their government finding out how they won a seat to the tournament? The Russian government is notorious for expressing their displeasure with people who disobey their laws.

Moreover, players from other parts of the world may experience difficulties when obtaining a visa or trying to enter the country. While there is no official travel ban on Americans or any other nationality entering the country, the Russian government has a very contentious relationship with the US and other nations in the current political environment. Hopefully, as players will be heading to a tourist destination to support a burgeoning market in Russia, they will not experience any problems. But there are risks involved, and players should be knowledgeable about the relations between their home countries and Russia, and they should know the location of the nearest embassy, just to be on the safe side.

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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.