Posted 3/17/11 : Have Full Tilt and Pokerstars been given their marching orders?
The internet's two biggest poker operators, Full Tilt and Pokerstars, have always been meticulous in adhering to the often complex laws of different jurisdictions as advised by their legal eagles – for example the departure from Washington state recently by Pokerstars following a judicial ruling.
That obedience may see both giants at least partially exiting the Belgian market soon amid a growing number of media reports since March 10 alleging that the operators have been sent warnings to depart by the Belgian Gaming Commission.
It is claimed in unconfirmed reports that the letters went out to licensing jurisdictions Alderney and Gibraltar (and presumably to Malta and Guernsey), requesting cooperation in closing out any licensees operating illegally in Belgium and warning that such licensees could face punitive measures if the warning is ignored.
Some of the reportage claims that Pokerstars and Full Tilt are referred to specifically in the warning, which sets a deadline for response of April 1st.
Begium's foray into online gambling has not been without criticism as operators and trade bodies have protested that the new licensing dispensation implemented earlier this year is disciminatory against foreign operators and restricts licensing to existing Belgian land gambling licensees.
The regulations set the minimum gambling age limit at 21 year – higher then the norm in online poker sites, and insist on Belgian presence and domains.
The European Commission is yet to sign off on some of the regulations, although that does not appear to have slowed down the Belgians in pushing ahead with their plans. These include provisions for ISP and financial transaction blocking if required.
Belgium has adopted the increasingly common "walled garden" approach to internet gambling regulation in Europe, attempting to ‘ring-fence' activities within its borders.
The chairman of the Belgian Gaming Commission, Etienne Marique, apparently flexes his regulatory and political muscles in the letter, threatening his fellow regulators in Alderney and Gibraltar with personal legal action if they do not cooperate in "preventing these crimes from taking place", although quite how he would go about this is not clear.
At the heart of the Belgian move is probably a commercial protectionist motive. Unless well established and popular international operators like Pokerstars and Full Tilt can be excluded from the domestic market, it is unlikely that players will be inclined to move to Belgian-licensed online poker rooms with lower global player liquidity.
That said, Pokerstars has signed a partnership agreement with the Belgian land-based (and licensed) Circus Groupe (see previous InfoPowa report) which presumably gives Pokerstars some local leverage.
The quid pro quo for being allowed to operate within the Circus Groupe partnership is that first deposit bonusing is not permitted, and that the online poker giant will allow only Belgian players vs. Belgian players in cash game action on its Begian-domained, dedicated website.
Neither Pokerstars nor Full Tilt had commented on the reports as we went to press.