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And the Next Hot Spot Is...
European Poker
by Nic Szeremeta

Poker in Europe is on the increase but a combination of governmental red tape and strategic mistakes by operators is slowing the rate of growth. In Spain, for example, it will require legislative changes to allow poker rooms — a process which may well be speeded up as this year’s World Series of Poker Champion, Carlos Mortenssen, just happens to be from Madrid.

In the Netherlands, Holland Casinos had to go through a six-month legal process in order to offer Omaha in its card room, and in the UK players still cannot have a beer at the table. They can get blind drunk in the bar and then sit down to play but drinking at the table — no way!

So what country has the best prospects for a poker boom? The answer is Russia, or rather the Russian Federation as it is now known.

The first steps towards establishing a lively poker community have already been taken in the main cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Unhindered by bureaucrats, the operators have a more or less free hand.

Two highly successful tournaments were held this summer in St. Petersburg, one at the Conti Group’s Olympia Casino, and the other at the super-luxurious Taleon Club. Both attracted overseas visitors and both exceeded their prize pool expectations. A total of $250,000-plus changed hands during the competition weeks.

In Moscow another major tournament will take place at the Cosmos Casino at the end of October.

The environment in both cities resembles the do-what-you-like atmosphere that existed when Las Vegas was in its infancy, with one major difference: Moscow and St. Petersburg are both major population centres.

St. Petersburg has 5 million-plus inhabitants and Moscow double that. Many of the people are not exactly awash with dollars (the country’s second currency) or even roubles but there are enough “new Russians”, dollar millionaires and middle class business people, to form the basis of a massive poker market — just as long as the current crop of would-be poker operators get their strategies right.

At present they are in a give-the-punters-as-much-as-possible mode. Drinks, meals, even cigars and cigarettes are on the house. At the Olympia tournament an Opel Astra car was thrown in, (no deduction from the pool), as a prize to the best overall player.

They are also aided by public perception. In many European countries poker players are regarded with the sort of suspicion reserved for petty larcenists and ne’er-do-wells, but in the Russian Federation poker is included in the League of Intellectual Games, together with chess et al.

Another factor aiding growth is the synergy being created in the Baltic area. Players from Helsinki’s Casino Ray in nearby Finland have become regular visitors. The Swedes are not far behind, and a poker room has just been set up in Tallinn, the Estonian capital. Adventurers from England and Australia have also had a taste of the Russian poker experience.

The Taleon Club, in the centre of St. Petersburg off Nevsky Prospect (the city’s equivalent of Fifth Avenue), is run-ning weekend tournaments once a month aimed at attracting overseas visitors. It is also developing a 25-room hotel adjoining the casino, a six-star facility that should be open within 18 months.

What can go wrong?

From a poker point of view there appears to be only one thing missing, and that is the ability of the operators to work out how to make money from the live-action.

Most of the cash games appear to be “pot-limit,” which is not the most promising nursery for novice players. There is a danger that unless American style “limit-poker” is introduced the rooms may become destinations for only the elite high and middle rollers. If the casinos’ profit motive is strong enough perhaps they will learn the angles. If they do, these two cities could really become poker paradises — all that action and ballet in the evenings too!

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