Israeli Supreme Court ruled poker a game of skill, making it technically legal. What's next?

The answer is a whole lot of waiting.

January 8, 2019 14:14
4 minute read.
Poker game gambling casino

Poker game . (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)


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The Israeli Penal Code deems games with outcomes “depending more on chance than on understanding or ability” as a prohibited game. This has been an argument with poker for a long time, but it hasn't stopped people from playing the game illicitly. With the recent Supreme Court ruling that declared poker as a game of skill, what's next for the gambling scene in Israel?

The answer is a whole lot of waiting. But there is a glimmer of hope: Likud MK Sharren Haskel proposed a bill that would make poker tournaments legal. This comes at the back of the Supreme Court ruling that deemed the card game as one that required skill to play, not luck.

Since what Haskel proposed is still in bill form, it would take transforming that into a law to make poker 100% legal in the country. Only time would tell if that law would ever be passed.

Attempts to legalize gambling

The recent Supreme Court decision and the poker bill aren't the first attempts at legalizing gambling in the country. Back in 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly looking into building a casino in Eliat.

And why not? That is the very location where cruise ships that host poker tournaments are. They can technically do what they do because they are technically out of Israeli territory.

Gambling in Israel is a complex issue. Sports betting and lottery are legal, activities which technically fall under the bracket of gambling. However, the law draws a line between what is played through skill or chance. They come down harsher in the latter, which is somewhat amusing give that the two aforementioned activities are more hewed towards chance rather than skill.

But Israel is hardly the only country with conflicting views on gambling. Several states in the United States have laws declaring online poker illegal. In fact, many gambling websites had to move out of the country after a federal law against internet gambling was issued in 2006.

Israelis who want to play the game have different options. One, they can leave the boundary of the country to play poker legally. The cruise ships at Eilat is one option, with others being international travel to places such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, and Malta – places where gambling isn't frowned upon.

The reported move of the Israeli prime minister to open up legal places to gamble was supposed to be a step towards decriminalizing poker. That was almost three years ago. While there are technically legal ways to “gamble” in Israel, the passing of the poker bill and the Supreme Court decision seem to be steps towards complete legalization.

Legal forms of gambling in Israel

Although Israel has taken a tough stance on gambling, the government operates sports betting and lottery games. The former is regulated by the Israeli Commission for Sports Gambling while the latter is run by Mifal Hapayis.

Since both are land-based operations, how does the online world figure into the equation? The penal code didn't specify anything about online operations at all.

So what happens when an Israeli pops opens a browser and points it at the direction of online bookmaker review site? With the site dealing more with bookmaker tips and reviews than casino gambling, any Israeli who pays a visit won't be penalized. However, the ruling gets murky when it comes to online casino gambling.

Lots of questions arise about gambling over the internet, one of the most prominent concerns servers located outside of Israel. Will an Israeli citizen face repercussions for accessing a site with a server that isn't physically located in the country and therefore not subject to its laws?

That's question that would hopefully get answered by a law legalizing gambling in Israel.

Illegal poker tournaments in Israel

Despite the illegal status placed on the game of poker, a lot of Israeli's find venues where they can play the game. Are they breaking the law? For sure, but there is a loophole in the country's laws that allow for such activities to take place and for its participants not to be criminalized.

When a game is played for its entertainment value at non-prohibited venue and attended by a fixed circle of people, then that activity won't be considered illegal. However, if caught, those who organized such an event face a three-year prison sentence while those who participated will spend at most a year in jail.

Even when faced with the threat of jail, poker playing is quite the huge business in Israel. It's a billion-dollar industry that many may associate with criminality but it's quite surprising to see who attends underground poker events.

People of different professions come to poker tournaments. Some are doctors while others are professors. Surely, not the kind of crowd you'd expect from an activity deemed “criminal.”

And the places where such “illicit” activities are held aren't what one would expect of underground activities. Organizers of poker tournaments in Israel host events in “clubs,” which are basically apartments transformed into a poker venue.

Apart from “clubs,” friends can simply organize a gathering.

Some of the top poker players in the world are Israeli, and it's a shame they can't practice a game – legally – on home soil. With the Supreme Court ruling that players of such a game aren't gamblers, only time will tell if poker's next chapter in the country will involve its transformation into a legal activity.

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