Pan-European Online Poker Liquidity Opposed in Italy

ItalyOfficials in Italy have expressed concerns about the consequences of pan-European online poker liquidity, potentially damaging plans for a joint network.

For more than a year, online gambling regulators from France, Spain, Italy and Portugal have been discussing plans to create a joint online poker network between the four ring-fenced countries. Recently, the momentum towards pan-European liquidity has been gathering pace and, in August, we reported how the four online poker markets could merge next year.

However, not everybody is in favour of a joint network. For the players, it is too little too late. Many have already abandoned their domestic, regulated markets to play at offshore sites and see little incentive for returning. There are also fears that a pan-European market will be dominated by French players, who will drain money from players in the other three countries.

Now the joint network may not go ahead with all four participants following reports in the Italian media of opposition to pan-European liquidity. Prominent Italian politicians and industry professionals have expressed concerns that a joint network between the four ring-fenced markets will lead to an increase in gambling addiction and criminal activity, and they have called on the Minister of Economy and Finance to block any deal involving the Italian market.

Binetti Starts the Ball Rolling

The first dissenting voice to be heard last week was that of Paola Binetti – a member of Italy´s Chamber of Deputies. Ms Binetti gave an interview to the Italian gambling magazine agimeg.it in which she claimed the expansion of Italy´s online poker market would undermine efforts to distinguish legal online gambling sites from illegal online gambling sites and could result in an increase in gambling addiction.

Different concerns were expressed the following day by Senator Franco Mirabelli – the head of Italy´s Anti-Mafia Commission. Mirabelli claims an increase in online gambling opportunities would result in an increase in money laundering opportunities. He told Gioco News parliament does not feel the need for a further expansion of Internet gambling.

Concerns were also raised by Giovanni Risso and Giorgio Pastorino – respectively the Chairs of the Federazione Italiana Tabaccai and Sindacato Totoricevitori Sportivi. Both organizations work with Italy´s gambling regulator to promote responsible gambling, and while Risso referred to the shared liquidity agreement as a “risky expansion”, Pastorino said his organization would take “all the possible steps for putting a brake on this uncontrolled freedom.”

An Unwelcome Distraction or a Serious Threat?

Had the only dissenting voice against an expansion of online gambling in Italy been that belonging to Ms Binetti – who is assumed to be opposed to gambling due to her connections with the religious organization Opus Dei – her objection to pan-European liquidity sharing would probably not have been reported. However, Franco Mirabelli´s opposition makes the threat more serious.

Whether or not he genuinely represents the views of parliament when he claims there is no desire for a further expansion of gambling may be irrelevant. Italy has a massive problem with gambling addiction, and Mirabelli is respected for the efforts he has put in to reduce the number of gambling opportunities available to Italians – both online and offline. His opinions with regard to gambling often get listened to.

The support of the Federazione Italiana Tabaccai and Sindacato Totoricevitori Sportivi is also significant. The Federazione Italiana Tabaccai in particular does a lot of work to prevent underage gambling and its Chair – Giovanni Risso – has called on the government to limit the opportunities gamblers have to access online gambling sites in order to prevent young people getting involved in the pastime.

And Does it Really Matter Anyway?

A further issue exists about trying to find people in favour of pan-European liquidity. Obviously PokerStars and Winamax want it because they will be the largest operators in a combined marketplace and stand to gain the most financially. However, smaller operators – who will be unable to compete beyond their ring-fenced market – will likely fold, resulting in less competition for players.

A more suitable solution for four of the five Italian licensed holders that would likely go out of business is for Italy to pull out of the pan-European liquidity-sharing agreement and let France, Spain and Portugal create a three-nation market. PokerStars would not care about that as the site has a 50%+ market share in Italy, which is no larger than it would have if Winamax obtained an Italian license.

Few online poker players in Italy would shed a tear if they were not to “benefit” from an expansion of online poker – as they already have offshore markets to play in that offer better liquidity than their domestic market – and the only possible loser if Italy was to withdraw from the liquidity-sharing agreement would be Winamax. That obviously matters to Winamax, but does anybody else care?