Is Legalized Poker on the Cards for Israel?

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Israel’s Supreme Court recently ruled poker to be a game of skill, rather than luck. Keeping the momentum going, Sharren Haskel from the Likud Party has now introduced a bill to the Knesset that would recognize poker as a skill-based game, thus allowing it to bypass the country’s strict anti-gambling laws.

Strict Gambling Laws in Israel

Israel has a tough approach towards gambling, and in 2017 imposed an outright ban on slot machines and horse racing. Currently, the country allows just two state-run lotteries, namely the national lottery (Mifal Hapayis), and a weekly run sports betting council lottery (Toto).

Needless to say, there are no casinos in the land situated on the southeastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, and definitely no poker. This is due to a conservative view of gambling which sees the pastime as a tax on the poor, and as the Israeli minister of finance, Moshe Kahlon, stated a couple of year back, “Israel’s weakest and poorest are being sold illusions and false hopes every day.”

Legality of Poker

Strict rules apply to those breaking the law, and any person found gambling at poker faces up to a year behind bars, while for those organizing poker tournaments the sentence increases to up to three years. In reality, however, Israel has a thriving poker scene, with thousands of Israelis playing the game online, or traveling to live events around the world. Three of the first five events at this year’s WSOP Europe, for instance, were all won by Israeli players.

Supreme Court Ruling

In 2009, the Israeli Poker Players Association took a petition to the Israel Supreme Court to have Texas Holdem tournaments permitted in the country. Unfortunately, their efforts to show poker as a game of skill instead of chance were not accepted, and the court rejected their claims about the well-known card game.  Recently, however, Supreme Court Judge Neal Hendel handed down a positive ruling concerning poker as a game of skill, and wrote:

“The fact that the players go to contests and tournaments year after year strengthens the conclusion that it is not a game of luck.”

Wasting no time, Sharren Haskel, a Likud party member, has introduced a bill calling for poker to be treated as a game of skill, and for poker tournaments to be allowed in Israel. The piece of legislation is designed to enshrine the Supreme Court’s ruling into law. Israel’s Finance Ministry would then be tasked with regulating and governing the prospective industry, and, of course, collecting tax earnings.

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Will It Gain Enough Support?

Commenting upon his bill, Mr. Haskel said that the Supreme Court had ruled poker to be a skill-based game and not a form of gambling. Furthermore, he stated that poker players should therefore “be permitted to practice on their home turf”, thus enabling them to gain further accolades for their country on the international arena.

“Israeli sportsmen bring respect and pride to the state in international competitions,” explained Haskel.

Mr. Haskel’s piece of legislation has now been tabled for consideration in the Knesset, but it remains to be seen just how much support it will gain in the country’s legislative body. In the meantime, there appears to be little softening in the attitude of Israeli lawmakers towards other types of gambling, which continue to be prohibited in the country.

Last month, for instance, a Tel Aviv District Court judge ruled that three gambling websites should be blocked from targeting Israeli customers (www.p2vbet.com, www.1xbet.com, and www.totobet777.com). Ironically, however, Israel has become a hub for international gaming companies to set up offices, with Ladbrokes Coral, 888, and Playtech among the multitude of firms to have already done so.