The Stars Group Becomes Latest Online Operator Fined by Dutch KSA
Canada’s The Stars Group, parent company of PokerStars and other Stars-branded online gambling brands, has become the latest online operator to run afoul the Netherlands’ online gambling operator, the Kansspelautoriteit (KSA). On Monday, the KSA announced a fine of €350,000 levied against TSG Interactive Gaming Europe Limited, the parent entity of pokerstars.eu.
The KSA fine, originally decreed on September 3rd but not published for nearly three weeks, is in connection with services provided by PokerStars to the Dutch online market, largely in 2018. PokerStars becomes the third European operator to be hit with a hefty fine by the Netherlands since early August, joining bwin and Unibet in that regard.
In its decision, the KSA decreed that online poker remains strictly illegal under Dutch law. Poker is not a game of chance in all countries, because skill also plays a role in poker. According to the KSA: “In the Netherlands, poker is a game of chance. The Supreme Court, the highest court, determined this in 1998). In the Netherlands, only Holland Casino is allowed to play poker to offer money in one of its physical locations. Everything else – both physically and online – is illegal.”
The KSA investigated Stars’ offerings on several different occasions beginning in July 2018, and judged that Pokerstars’ online presence targeted Dutch nationals in several ways. Perhaps most important was Pokerstars’ use of Netherlands-based online payment processor iDeal until late August of 2018. Stars has since discontinued using the Dutch-only processor, but before Stars dropped the service, the KSA obtained account information from iDeal. That inquiry showed that just from July 14, 2018 to August 29, 2018, more than 33,000 unique Dutch account holders conducted almost 255,000 transactions with PokerStars through iDeal. Stars stopped using iDeal at about the same time, but whether that was in direct response to the banking inquiry was not specified.
The iDeal situation was far from the only factor that led the KSA to determine that Stars was specifically targeting Dutch players. The KSA’s full findings show the agency assembled this list of claims:
- The website was accessible from a Dutch IP address;
- Two famous Dutch people had their own page on the website and were part of the Team Pokerstars Netherlands;
- The iDeal payment method was offered under the online bank option transfer;
- The minimum deposit was € 10 unless stated otherwise;
- There was no maximum deposit. Under set deposit limit it was stated that each player can set his own limit;
- A Dutch-language contact form was available on the website;
- The website mentioned two Dutch organizations for addiction care under the heading: Need help, advise or counseling;
- The website mentioned a list of excluded countries. The Netherlands was not included in this list;
- Poker games (poker tournaments) were offered on the website: Biggest Poker Tournaments in Live & Online Poker. 10 online poker tournaments and 12 live poker tournaments are mentioned. Pokerstars also mentioned it was the world’s largest online poker site and the only place to play tournament poker online with a game starting every second;
- Various bonuses and promotions were offered (see under 6.4 in this decision);
- Pokerstars.eu used a random number generator, [stating] that the cards were software-based and shaken so that they are in a completely random order;
- A Dutch-language Customer Services Specialist was being sought during July 2018.
By the time of another KSA look at PokerStars in January 2019, the iDeal payment option and the help-wanted ad for Dutch-language support had been removed. However, the Netherlands was still not included on pokerstars.eu’s list of prohibited jurisdictions. While investigating the site’s handling of the process of creating a new account, the KSA also discovered that the creation process defaulted to Netherlands as the account holder’s host country, implying that Stars was geolocation checking and approving the Netherlands-based KSA investigator who was attempting to open an account.
The Stars Group was notified of the KSA investigation in April 2019. In May, TSG was invited to a hearing to be held in June to discuss the allegations. TSG showed up in force, bringing three company execs, three attorneys and an interpreter, and launched an affirmative defense. That defense included such claims as the Dutch-language support was being offered for Dutch-speaking players outside the Netherlands, and that neither the mention of the two Dutch Team PokerStars players nor the mention of Netherlands-based problem-gambling services were relevant to the specific charges being brought against Stars.
Nonetheless, the KSA ruled that the collective evidence showed that Stars was targeting Dutch players and that the site’s Malta-based EU license was invalid for providing services to players inside the Netherlands. The Stars Group has six weeks to appeal the ruling and fine but has yet to acknowledge the penalties in any public statement to date.