Generally speaking, the continent of Europe is pretty progressive towards poker, and is in fact on the leading edge of online poker regulation. Gambling itself is well tolerated here, and even in the most restrictive of countries, like Russia, you still see at least some form of licensed gambling going on. Time will tell if more European poker sites become available to players in the region.
The approaches to online poker do differ quite a bit within the different countries on the continent though, even though the European Union is a steadying force. Not all countries in Europe are members of the EU though, and some who are still are trying to resist a more “open market” type of philosophy that the EU represents.
Europe is a pretty affluent region of the world, and enjoys a very good internet penetration rate overall. When you combine that with a love of gambling and a culture that has embraced the game of poker quite well over the last few years, Europe represents a very significant portion of the iGaming market as a whole.
Best European Online Poker Sites
The Early and Unregulated Days of Online Poker
From the outset, Europeans took to online poker very nicely, especially players in Western European countries. Online poker did not take off quite like it did in the United States, a country that once represented 50% of the online poker market, but it has been steadily growing in popularity in Europe over all the years and has maintained a strong footing overall in the region.
In earlier times, we saw a cultural explosion of online poker in the United States for a few years, from the ups of Chris Moneymaker’s 2003 WSOP Main Event win to the downs of the USA government’s passing of the UIGEA bill in 2006. Europe didn’t really see a similar spike during this time, as its growth was more slow and steady, but even during that time it was showing itself to be a significant force in the online poker market.
With most online poker sites pulling out of the U.S. market after UIGEA, there was a huge shift in offshore marketing for these companies, in which Europe was the prime beneficiary. Europe’s market was underdeveloped somewhat anyway at this time, and with the U.S. out of the picture, the region would lay claim to the best games in town for these sites, so to speak.
After “Black Friday,” the U.S. shrunk their market even further, to the point where there are only a handful of trustworthy sites still accepting Americans today. The exits of industry giants like Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars in the United States opened up an increased focus on Europe, where just about all of the major iGaming companies were ready to capitalize on another online poker resurgence in the area.
Just as PokerStars had conquered America’s online poker market share in previous years, they quickly began to take hold of Europe’s emerging markets, along with other larger industry players like 888 and PartyPoker. Other mid-level operators like Titan Poker also saw increased spikes in real money player traffic during this time.
Europe Starts To Become Regulated
Online poker has always been regulated, although the regulatory bodies have tended to be jurisdictions other than where the players are. The main reasons for this has been due to taxation, where online poker sites would seek out smaller locations that were much more tax-friendly compared to other larger countries.
With traditional [land-based] gambling regulation, the country where the gambling is located both controls it and benefits from taxing it. Since online poker is played on the internet, domestic regulation of this is not so simple.
However, it can be done, as France and Italy became the Europe’s first regulated online poker markets in 2010 and 2011, respectively. The thinking then was to essentially ring fence the online poker market so to speak, licensing country-specific sites and controlling the taxation of poker that way.
So this strategy was fashioned as applying an old idea, keeping gambling within a country as a first step towards regulation. So the plan was to try to emulate land-based gambling in that sense, confining it first and then regulating it within each country’s legislative process.
This restricted players though to playing against players from their own country only, at least within the regulatory scheme, and caused many to continue to play at unregulated sites. This did deliver the tax revenue that these countries wanted, even though they only captured a portion of the market.
Since then, several other countries have regulated online poker, some following the same exclusive strategy – including the ring fencing of their players – and others embracing a more inclusive view.
What made this exclusionary tactic actually work was getting PokerStars on board with it. With PokerStars only offering play in a country to their country-specific website (ie players in France played on PokerStars.fr and NOT PokertStars.com, where there were tons of other worldwide players playing at any one time), this was a big draw for locals. This scheme would basically allows the elimination of the main PokerStars site as a competitor, with the region-specific PokerStars sites ending up being very competitive and quite attractive as a result.
Other Competing Strategies for Smaller Euro Markets
Denmark was the pioneer with the idea of regulating players but still allowing them to play on the main international sites. Denmark is likely too small of a market to support their own online poker market and still have it competitive enough to survive long term. So they came up with a better idea, to tax their own players but let them play on the bigger sites, like the main PokerStars.com site for instance.
So now we have two competing strategies, and while countries like Italy, France, and Spain still maintain their restrictive one, newer regulations such as the new ones in the U.K. understand the benefits of not restricting players like this, even in cases where they could.
More countries have either regulated it or are moving towards it, and European countries generally control this at the federal level, unlike the United States which regulates it on a state by state basis. Such is also the case with Germany, with only 1 of their 16 states permitting it, and getting country wide regulation is obviously more difficult in these circumstances.
The Role of the EU in Online Poker
Interestingly, in the absence of specific regulations toward online poker, EU rules permit players in member countries to play online poker freely at any poker site licensed in the EU. A country may come up with its own regulations, and disallow players from playing at international sites, but the internal market must be open to EU companies.
These rules have worked well enough with the countries that have already come up with domestic online poker regulation, but the several countries that have not sought to permit it, we are seeing some real conflicts emerging. In particular, countries that maintain monopolies on gambling and online poker are running afoul of the European Commission, whose rules take precedence here over their own regulation.
So we are seeing some real court battles, which in essence only amount to delaying tactics by the countries looking to sidestep these free market-enabling rules. Over time the European Commission will prevail, although not without controversy. The fight for expanded regulation will undoubtedly continue to expand in Europe over the coming years, which should make online poker that much more accessible in the region.
Some Countries Continue To Fight
There are quite a few countries that are managing to at least try to resist the widespread and growing popularity of online poker. In the end though, there is little that a country can do to stop it, whether it be deemed to be legal or not.
Some countries try to block access to online poker sites, but this has not been shown to be effective, and can be defeated very easily by players. Blocking financial transactions is another tactic, but the most this does is inconvenience players, who simply shift to 3rd party payment processors that are outside the reach of their governments.
These tactics are at least somewhat effective though, especially in limiting more casual players from participating, players who are less knowledgeable about the ways around their government’s attempts to block them, and ones who may actually think they may be risking arrest for playing.
Online gambling laws aren’t really enforceable though. Something being against the law is only part of it, the other part is being able to catch people breaking it, and while that can be done with land-based gambling, this simply isn’t realistic with online poker.
So players just tend to ignore these laws, because they aren’t meaningful, and no one is being arrested, although having them certainly limits growth, due to a lack of a proper understanding of the dynamics involved. This is especially true in the United States, with a great many people mistakenly thinking that online poker cannot be played anymore in most states, even though it is only the financial institutions that bear the burden of penalty, NOT the players themselves.
The Future Of Online Poker in Europe
We will likely see more and more governments get on board with online poker, although it may be a very long time before they all do. On the other hand, even the most hardliner countries, like Russia, who actively seek to oppose it, may not be that far away from regulation.
The technology does exist where players can be geolocated effectively enough to keep them out of online poker entirely, although this only works in a regulated scheme. Sites outside of it simply don’t care or have any incentive to comply with a government’s wishes.
So if you have both the site and players willing, then that’s all you need really. Europeans really like poker, and poker these days is as close as your internet connection, and most of Europe has such means, and a great many of them simply won’t be denied.
The online poker market in Europe is quite mature already, although there still is some real potential for growth. Overall though, there is plenty of great choices to be had as far as where you can play, and depositing and withdrawing is quite easy generally. More and more countries are moving toward getting in on the action as well. The future of online poker in Europe looks bright indeed.