Place your bets. Will Israel legalize poker?

Will Israelis' favorite game come out of the shadows and into the neon ligts?

By COURTESY
March 20, 2018 10:56
4 minute read.
Poker game gambling casino

Poker game . (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)

 
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As we all know too well, the situation regarding gambling in Israel has always been a confusing one. Whilst sports betting and lottery are both legal, other forms of gambling like casino games are strictly illegal and carry very serious repercussions

Games like poker for instance, which is probably the most popular game among Israelis, are not allowed. In fact, there are no land-based casinos in Israel and although back in 2015 Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed to open the first legal casino in Israel in Eilat to attract tourists, none of this came to fruition.

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However, this is not to say that Israelis do not engage in such activities behind closed doors. They have always done it, they still do it and will continue to do it.

For starters, Israelis travel to close countries like Egypt, but even more so, they can just hop on board one of several cruise ships in Israel’s port cities such as Eilat, on which Israeli Poker Tournaments are held outside of territorial waters. Whilst there is a fine line here between what’s considered legal and illegal, at the same time players aren’t prosecuted because they are still outside Israel’s territory.

Secondly, although poker is strictly illegal, there is a big underground business. According to an article published by Haaretz, there are two ways that poker events are held without attracting the gaze of the law. The first being a group of friends organizing a fun poker night amongst themselves at home, and the second being hosting poker events in “clubs”, which in reality are normal apartments that are used solely for the purpose of organizing such events.

These "clubs" would then make some profit by taking a percentage of the winnings, kind of like a tax. And if you thought the people attending these events were youngsters rebelling against the law, you'd have another thing coming. In these clubs, you'll not only find people of different professions such as doctors and professors, but you are also very likely to find army officers too.

Doesn't the state know about these activities? It probably does, however being that these events are being held for "entertainment" purposes between a small group of people, and are held in apartments rather than casinos, they are not necessarily treated as criminal activities. That said, there is still some risk for both the organizers, who can face up to three years in jail, and the clients, who can face up to a year behind bars.

The main argument used to justify whether games should be illegal or not depends on the factor of skill v.s. chance. If a game is skill-based and players can, to a certain extent, affect the outcome of the game, then it is legal, but if the game is purely based on luck, then it is deemed illegal. 

The controversy, however, lies in the fact that both lottery and sports betting do not require much skill but rather luck, especially the former one. Yet there is no debate on this since they are both state monopolies, i.e. they are both controlled by the state. The sports betting industry is regulated by the Israeli Commission for Sports Gambling, while the national lottery is run by Mifal Hapayis.

What About Online Gambling?


When it comes to online, the same laws apply; i.e. sports betting and lottery are legal, whereas casino gambling remains illegal. At first, the law used to enforce this ban was the same law that was passed back in 1977 about casino gambling, which didn’t make much sense since it did not properly address the question of internet gambling.

It is only in recent years, that online gambling operators and credit card companies that processed transactions got online gambling sites to close down in Israel. However, again, the situation is not as clear-cut. The law does not address several other issues related to online gambling.

First of all, it does not address the question of Israelis that play on servers outside of Israeli territory, let alone the question of mobile gambling. Secondly, although Israelis are not allowed to play online casino games, the country still has a number of gambling operators to which it also serves as a gambling jurisdiction.

This is not to say that aren’t other countries around the world whose laws on gambling are also confusing. Take America for instance, where online gambling is illegal in most states and yet players are still not prosecuted for playing on foreign gambling sites.

In Canada, where both online and offline gambling activities are considered legal, in reality, there is no specific legislation in relation to online gambling. Rather, different provinces have their own laws, most of which dictate that it is legal for players to gamble, but illegal for companies to operate online casinos from Canada. Regardless of this, the majority of the population engage in gambling activities. In fact, Casinos.co estimate that over 70% of Canadians have gambled in the past year alone. 

With France, the situation gets even more confusing. As such, most online and offline gambling activities are legal, with the former being strictly controlled. Online casino gambling in particular though, is not. Yet, regardless of online gambling being “heavily regulated”, players can still play on foreign websites without the fear of being prosecuted.

What next?

While we cannot exactly say what’s next, what we know is that gambling remains a very big business in Israel. Roughly $3.5 billion revenue from illegal gambling each year, so it is very unlikely it will die anytime soon. On the contrary, many argue that it is only a matter of time till casino gambling is made legal.

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