In April of last year, the Chinese Government made something of a shocking announcement, declaring a ban on all online poker apps effective on the 1st of June.
The news sent shockwaves throughout the Asian poker community, and the Chinese poker industry, which had been enjoying something of a boom. In one fell swoop, the government had seemingly laid waste to a blossoming industry.
So, what has happened to Chinese poker in the months since the ban came into place? Has the industry taken a nosedive or has it trundled on regardless? Before we answer that question, let’s first look at the apparent reasoning behind the government crackdown.
A Black Friday for poker, but why?
Online poker in China has always been a little different. Playing for actual cash is legal only in the administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau while on the mainland, it not allowed. So, to give players a chance to play online, providers turned to the play money model, which sees players use virtual cash. To many, it seemed the ideal solution, but apparently, it wasn’t enough for the government.
The new laws seem to be something of an extension of the 2016 laws that cracked down on in-app purchases. The original laws only allowed gaming apps with an “internet culture license” to charge for those in-game purchases. The move was a resounding success, and so, they have turned their attention to gaming in the form of poker.
Chinese people enjoy gaming a great deal, and it’s one of the most popular social activities in the country. Whether it’s cards, chess or dice, many people in China enjoy the excitement of games involving a wager. Therefore, it seems likely that the legislation introduced with the intention of curtailing the booming gaming industry, a decision that seems a little odd given the taxes the government will now miss.
Poker Tourism on the Rise
One unexpected beneficiary to the ban has been the poker tourism industry. Despite fears that the ban would reduce poker tourism numbers, the opposite is true. Originally, tournament organizers in Macau and further afield in Singapore had feared that the ban would affect their player numbers as many of their tournament entrants qualified through satellite tournaments held on play money apps in China. However, if anything, the tourism stats have held fast or in some cases, improved.
The Local Game
Regardless of the crackdown on online poker providers operating within China, it’s hard to imagine the game ever becoming unpopular. Locals love their Chinese poker, but variations such as Texas Hold ‘em and seven-card stud remain hugely popular. So, while online poker apps are now illegal, the game is not, and thus, it will always remain a popular pastime.
However, the main issue that local players must overcome is the fact that any online promotional content relating to poker tournaments or events is now banned. That means that even discussion boards on networks such as Weibo are now useless. With no outlet for discussion, local players now have to play at home with friends or other players from the region.
That also makes it virtually impossible for tour operators to advertise upcoming poker events in places such as Macau and Singapore, although as the stats we shared above indicate, it seems to have had little effect on local players’ determination to find a money game while on holiday. Unfortunately, not everyone can afford a luxury holiday to the casinos of Macau so they can play a little poker.
What’s in store?
It’s hard to say what will become of the local poker industry as legally, the industry doesn’t exist. The top providers who invested heavily in the local industry are left with no choice but to write off their investment and start again from square one, but where is square one? It’s highly unlikely that the government will ever repeal the legislation that banned the apps, so China is effectively out of the picture, which is a shame for all those mainland-based poker lovers.
Still, Asia is a massive market with many online players based in the region enjoying huge success in online tournaments, so there’s plenty of room for growth. Indeed, there has already been rapid growth in India where certain regions of the country allow online poker and casino games. And the shutdown of the Chinese market has allowed industry heavyweights to focus their attention there.
The Indian online gaming market is colossal, and by 2021, it’s likely that there will be as many as 310 million gamers in the country. The link between online gaming and online poker has always been strong, and so if only a small percentage of that 310 million can convert to online poker players, the market value would still be quite substantial. You can now see why providers are eager to turn their attention to India.
Unfortunately, India’s gain is China’s loss. The future for online poker players in China is bleak at best with the possibility of playing online virtually nonexistent. Sure, players will find loopholes and ways to get around the poker ban with Chinese poker being the perfect example of such circumnavigation. That’s because the local game is free of money, and with slightly different rules, it’s perfectly legal. But undoubtedly, this variation of the traditional game will rise in popularity now that there is a ban on regular poker. All it takes now is an enterprising start-up to find some way to bring this to the poker-playing public.
While Chinese poker may live on, the truth is that what looked to be a promising market that could have brought jobs, taxes and money into the country is now gone. However, as long as we have the internet, online poker will never die but unfortunately, here in China, its day has now passed. It’s a strange decision by the government, but one that the public has no choice but to abide.
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