While gambling is illegal in China with the exception of Hong Kong and Macau, betting on card games is deeply rooted in Chinese culture. Poker has in recent years started gaining popularity despite the limited options for playing, mostly on account of televised poker tournaments which air on television networks in Chinese language.
Due to the fact that gambling is illegal in mainland China, there are very few options for playing poker for real money. In terms of playing poker online, although there are no Chinese-owned or Chinese-operated poker sites, experts say that players can still access international poker websites located outside mainland China.
To get around mainland China’s ban on gambling, in 2007 poker-tour operator WPT Enterprises Inc started sponsoring a series of cashless tournaments around ‘tractor poker’, a home-grown variant classified as a sport in the country. Tractor poker or Tuo La Ji, which means tractor in Chinese, however is quite different from the poker versions popular in the western world. Tuo La Ji is a team game which uses two decks of cards with jokers with points being accrued for each trick won by teams, while trump suits help mix up the game.
After having spent five years as the primary promoter of the Tractor Poker Tour, WPT sought approval to change the game from Tuo La Ji and to Hold’em for a main event, which led to the mainland’s first high-stakes No Limit Hold’em held in December 2012 at the MGM Grand Sanya located in Hainan province.
Moving on to the Chinese gamblers’ preferred destination, poker was introduced in Macau as late as August 2007, in an electronic table format at Galaxy Starworld casino, using PokerPro tables from PokerTek, Inc. Later in 2007, the first live Asia Pacific Poker Tour took place in Macau. The first season of the tournament ran from August to December 2007 with five events held across four locations, namely Macau, Manila, Seoul and Sydney. Two of the events were held in Macau.
In January 2008, the government of Macau published the official rules for Texas hold’em poker games. A month later, the Grand Lisboa Casino added the first live-dealer cash game tables in Macau, while in May, PokerStars Macau opened at Grand Waldo Casino, followed by Texas Hold’em Poker which opened at Wynn Macau in November 2008. Today, Wynn Macau, StarWorld, and the Venetian offer live-dealer cash game poker tables.
With gambling being illegal in mainland China and legalised in Macau, Hong Kong, China’s other special administrative region, stands somewhere in the middle. To put it in short, gambling in Hong Kong is heavily restricted to a very small number of authorised gambling outlets.
Gambling in Hong Kong has been regulated since 1977, before the city, which became part of the British Empire after the First Opium War, joined the People’s Republic of China. The regulation of gambling in Hong Kong was a response to numerous cases of problem gambling in the city. Hong Kong’s government however decided that prohibiting gambling completely would not be practicable since it would result in widespread illegal gambling activities.
The Hong Kong’s Home Affairs Bureau, which currently is responsible for formulating the city’s gambling policy and monitoring its implementation, has authorised several gambling outlets, namely horse racing organised by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, the Mark Six Lottery, authorised football betting and gaming activities authorised by the public officer appointed by the Secretary for Home Affairs.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club is the main authorised gambling outlet in the city. Founded as early as 1884 to promote horse racing, in 1959 the club was granted Royal Charter and renamed to The Royal Hong Kong Jockey Club. The name of the institution was reverted to its original name in 1996 to reflect the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the PRC in 1997.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club provides gambling entertainment such as pari-mutuel betting on horse racing, the Mark Six lottery as well as fixed odds betting on overseas football events. In addition to providing betting services, the club is also involved in various charities. The organisation is said to be the largest taxpayer in Hong Kong as well as the city’s largest private donor of charity funds.
While Hong Kong’s gambling policy is aimed at achieving the delicate balance between meeting the demand for gambling and minimising potential harm to the individual and the community, Hong Kong’s citizens are also frequent visitors in Macau’s casinos or they place live casino bets with Betsafe. The Sociedade de Turismo e Diversões de Macau, a syndicate jointly formed by Hong Kong and Macau businessmen, has modernised the marine transport between Macau and Hong Kong, bringing millions of gamblers from Hong Kong to the ‘Monte Carlo of the Orient’ every year.
Most of the news, commentary and speculation in the field of regulatory developments for the online gambling industry is currently centred on the changing landscape in the USA and the increasingly fierce war being waged as a result. However, there is another market that the online casino industry is watching with perhaps even greater expectation and hope – China.
Gambling, excluding a number of state-run activities such as lotteries, is illegal in Mainland China, despite the fact that card and dice games of chance and betting are deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. Although the huge casino scene in the Special Administrative Region of Macau is internationally famous, this is the only legal option for Chinese casino fans. And of course, travelling to Macau is not always, or for many ever, a practical option to indulge in casino gaming legally.
Despite being illegal, the online gambling industry in China is thought to be worth somewhere in the region of $15 billion. Chinese citizens illegally access offshore online casinos targeted at Chinese players with Chinese language and support. With mobile usage growing exponentially in China, there are more than 1 billion mobile users in the country, almost half of which have internet access via smartphones, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the government to effectively restrict online gaming activity by its citizens.
In light of the fact that the market is growing quickly and that currently the government or local companies see none of the income being generated, it can be assumed that it is only a matter of time before online gaming becomes somehow regulated and legalised in China. Many experts believe that this movement will begin to take place within the next year or two.
Indeed, many of the big established international online casino groups are already actively seeking to form relationships and communication with local groups and business interests. It can be assumed that if and when online casinos do become legal, foreign companies will only be able to enter the market in partnership with local operators. How accessible the Chinese market will be to foreign companies is hard to tell but local companies will undoubtedly have need of the experience that the big international players already have if they are to succeed in the frenzied competition which will undoubtedly follow any move to legalise online gambling in China.
International online casino and bookmaker Betsson’s Karl Rangeldst commented:
“Of course we, and the rest of the major players in the online gambling space, are keeping a close eye on developments in China. No-one needs to say how huge the market would potentially be and any serious online casino group would be remiss to not want to ensure they are in a position to make headway in China if the regulatory landscape there allows. We do have people who are actively keeping an eye on the situation there and putting down the foundations so ensure we are ready in the case of any changes in the laws governing gambling in China”.
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Macau is famous for its casinos, pretty much the ‘raison detre’, of the special administrative region of China. Some of them are truly spectacular with Macau standing alongside Las Vegas as the world’s gambling capitals. Let’s take a look at some of the best for any of you who might be thinking of paying Hong Kong’s neighbour a visit.
Wynn Macau: Spectacularly posh
The Wynn Macau is the twin of the Las Vegas casino and has been loyal to the original Vegas Wynn’s red and beige colour scheme. As you might expect from one of the world’s most famous casinos, the Wynn Macau’s style treads the fine line between high class and spectacularly kitsch. On which side of the line it falls is probably down to personal taste, but a casino has to be given a bit more of a license when it comes to extravagance. The Wynn has all the classic casino table games and is famous for the predominance of high stakes games which attract the high roller set. Female dealers are also clearly ‘selectively’ chosen and prove to be quite the attraction.
The Wynn has two spectacular signature shows. One takes place hourly and consists of the impressive, if slightly comic, sight of a huge ‘Dragon of Fortune’, rising out of the casino’s rotunda to 10 metres or so up in the air, smoke billowing from its nostrils. It is made from gold leaf and adds a definite touch of grandiose bling. The ‘Tree of Prosperity’ is even busier, with the giant, you guessed it, golden tree rising into the air every 30 minutes.
If you are into shopping the Wynn also has a boutique shopping area with all the big fashion labels present from Gucci to Prada.
The Grand Lisboa
If The Wynn Macau treads the line between classy and tacky as best a huge casino can do, the Grand Lisboa is unashamedly a classic casino – a bit tacky. But, it’s still luxurious and blingy, rather than seedy. The Grand Lisboa doesn’t so much go in for shows and entertainment. It is pretty much a no-frills gambling experience. The casino is renowned as the top destination for poker and has the biggest, most say also the best, poker room in Asia. Most of the top Asian poker tournaments are held here and you can find the top Asian poker masters here on any given evening.