In the early days of online poker – the late 1990s and the early 2000s – the prime market for online poker sites was the United States of America. After all, poker is an American game, and is often associated with the “Wild West” saloons and riverboat casinos that existed when the game was first popularized there in the 19th century.
Yet today, online poker is a huge game around the world, with no market being more important than that of Europe. European nations have become a hotbed for online poker due to a number of factors both cultural and legal which have rapidly changed the online poker marketplace over the past decade.
Let’s start our story in 2003. That was the year in which Chris Moneymaker won the World Series of Poker after qualifying from a low buy-in satellite tournament on PokerStars, an event that is widely regarded as having accelerated the online poker boom overnight. Most observers note how much interest this generated in the United States, but it also made a huge impact elsewhere. While it took some time for players to catch on to the intricacies of the game, European players quickly took to poker, and it soon became a common site to see multiple European players at a typical online poker table.
While online gambling companies still focused more attention on the USA than anywhere else, there were now sites beginning to focus on European players as well. This saw the first generation of online poker superstars emerge in nations like Sweden, Russia, and the UK. This focus on European nations became even more apparent in 2006, when restrictive legislation was passed by the U.S. government, leading to many of the top poker sites turning their eyes to Europe as their focus, with some leaving the USA behind entirely. Almost every site started offering players the option of playing (or at least holding account balances) using euros, with some also offering the pound has an alternative. Guides and portals like PokerSites.com started launching, providing easy ways for players to compare online poker rooms.
This rapid growth forced national governments to examine their policies towards online gambling. While some nations have taken a hard-line stance against online poker – Poland being a particularly noteworthy example – many others have chosen regulation in one form or another. Nations such as France, Spain and Italy have all made the decision to license and regulate poker at home, creating segregated player pools in each country.
While much of the major media coverage about the growth of online poker has focused on legislation from Western Europe, many Eastern European nations have also been caught up in the growth of online poker. While Poland has taken a strong stance against online gambling, nations such as Estonia and Romania have taken regulatory steps similar to their western neighbors.
Online poker has also proven extremely popular in nations such as Latvia, Lithuania, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. In fact, in Azerbaijan, it’s live poker that is illegal, meaning most of the biggest action takes place online. Russia and Ukraine have produced countless online poker players, and with the dearth of Americans at the virtual tables, Russians may now be the most common sight at many online poker sites.
The future of online poker in Europe is bright, with more growth seeming likely in the near term. In Western Europe, liquidity seems to be the key, as France, Spain and Italy have at least considered combining their poker player pools in order to provide more games and bigger prize pools for all involved. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, many nations are still seen as emerging markets, and it is likely that these countries will drive growth in the years to come – especially if local governments either take a “hands off” approach or regulate the game in a way that keeps it easily accessible for their citizens.