Finland's Ray Expected to Launch Online Poker

31 March 2009
As debate over a state-sponsored online poker room in Finland continues to make local headlines, Finnish legal experts told IGamingNews Tuesday that the country's slot-machine association, Raha-automaattiyhdistys, is expected to receive government approval to launch online.

"According to our sources and recent media occurrences, the Finnish government has plans to permit the association to organize casino games via the Internet," John Eriksson, an attorney with Widman & Hannes Snellman on Ă…land Islands, said in an e-mail.

The news comes as little surprise because the association -- better known by its abbreviated trading moniker, Ray -- announced last May it would be ready to launch an online poker operation once amendments to the country's Lotteries Act are implemented sometime after Easter.

Ray is one of the country's three gambling monopolies, and currently holds the license to operate casinos, casino games, slot machines and poker games -- all offline.

Since January 2008, Stefan Wallin, Finland's minister for culture and sport, has been a vocal supporter of a government-controlled poker offering.

"The number of Finns playing poker on the Internet is six-digit," Mr. Wallin told the Finnish paper Hufvudstadsbladet last spring. "All in all, they spend hundreds of millions of euro on gambling.

"There is always gambling you cannot oversee," he continued, "and this could be complemented by an organizer who offers the same kind of games, and who is able to supervise gambling and make sure that the public good is benefited by profit."

With Mr. Wallin's enthusiasm, however, has come criticism from the country's Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, which considers poker a dangerous form of gambling because it attracts young men -- a demographic it regards as particularly vulnerable to problem gambling.

Moreover, Tapio Jaakola, executive director of Peluuri, a nationwide helpline for problem gamblers, was quoted in a published report earlier this month as saying the number of calls received from online poker players has steadily increased since 2005.

According to its Web site, in the first half of 2007, Peluuri received 42 calls, and in the second, 50. In the first half of 2008, that figure rose to 57. Of 439 calls in the first half of 2008, the helpline reported 12.9 percent were from Internet poker players.

The country's Debt Counseling Office also reported that the number of poker players it assisted in 2008 doubled versus the previous year.

"In the past, we assisted online poker players a few times a year, or a few times a month, but now we help online poker players daily," Marianne Rikama, who heads the debt counseling office, was quoted by YLE News as saying last May.

Despite these concerns, Mr. Eriksson said that the amended Lotteries Act will not contain language prohibiting online poker.

However, under the amended act, advertising opportunities for real-money gambling -- including poker -- will be limited exclusively to the government-run monopolies.

Ahead of the act's adoption, MTV Oy, which for two seasons aired "Poker Star," an educational poker show sponsored by Unibet, announced in November 2008 that the show's 2009 season would be canceled.

The Federation of the Finnish Media, a trade organization, in a November 2008 submission to Parliament argued the amended act violates the Finnish Constitution by restricting commercial freedom of expression.

The European Commission opened its infringement proceeding against Finland in April 2006, and entered the reasoned opinion stage in March 2007.

More on this story as it develops.

Chris Krafcik is the editor of IGamingNews. He lives in St. Louis, Mo.