As far as I know, no one in Washington, D.C. last week was explicitly advancing arguments about poker being a “sport.” Probably just as well. Complicates things.
Recently the Russian government officially revoked poker’s status as a sport, thereby making it illegal to operate any non-government-sanctioned poker rooms. The change also means that poker rooms are forbidden from operating within 1,000 kilometers of Moscow, with just a few remote locations (including in Siberia) now being allowed. Big news in Russia, a country whose gaming industry had grown significantly since the early 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Reports are that “tens of thousands” already find themselves unemployed as a result of this change.
To give you an idea of the scope, more than 520 casinos were operating in Moscow prior to the change in designation for poker, meaning more than 10,000 people in the Russian capital instantly lost their jobs. The Russian Association for Gaming Business Development has estimated that ultimately something like 350,000 people eventually will lose their jobs across Russia as a direct consequence of the change, and more than $2 billion of tax revenue will be lost. Not all agree with those numbers -- other estimates of lost jobs and tax revenue are considerably lower -- but you get the idea.
Meanwhile, poker and other forms of gambling can only now take place in Siberia and other far-away spots.
Something kind of uncanny in hearing those references to poker having been “exiled” to Siberia. That’s because Siberia was one of the places where the Soviet Union (up through the 1950s) had located hundreds of labor camps -- by order of the governmental agency known as the “Gulag” -- where prisoners were sent to work as punishment. The labor camps predated the U.S.S.R., actually, with Russia having similarly sent prisoners to Siberia to work back in the 19th century. Indeed, at the end of The Brothers Karamazov (published in 1880 and set a couple of decades before), when Dmitri is on trial for murdering his father, he’s facing the prospect of being shipped to Siberia for a life of hard labor should he be found guilty.
Meaning the name “Siberia” automatically evokes for many ideas of exile, punishment, and the severe exertion of governmental authority.
This anti-gambling law went into effect on July 1, and appears to have caught many off guard, including the European Poker Tour which had a scheduled a tour stop in Moscow next month. It shouldn’t have, though, as former Russian president Vladimir Putin had signed the bill -- called “About the State Regulation of Activities on Gambling” (a.k.a., the “Russian Gambling Bill”) -- into law way back in November 2006. Not like the EPT and others couldn’t have seen it coming. (EDIT [added 1:30 p.m.] -- See comments for clarification here; while the anti-gambling law went into effect 7/1/09, the change in poker's "sport" designation that forced the closure of poker rooms only came more recently.)
Sounds like the whole “poker as a sport” thing was one of those peculiar idiosyncrasies that resulted from someone -- namely those running the Russian Physical Training and Sport Committee that made the list -- not really recognizing the government’s authority in such matters when they included poker on the list (back in 2004, apparently).
Since all the casinos in Moscow have been closed, the EPT has moved its August event over to Kiev, the Ukraine capital.
Where will the event take place? The Kiev Sports Palace (pictured at left). Where they host things like the Eurovision Song Contest, fairs and exhibitions, and other big public gatherings.
And various sports, too. You know, like poker.