Green light for playing poker in pubs - Monday 27th of November 2006

THE government is paving the way for a gambling bonanza in Britain’s pubs by easing restrictions on playing card games including poker for money in bars.

Any pub will be free to hold poker games for cash under reforms to the gambling laws to be introduced next year. At present, only pubs with a special permit from their local council are allowed to do so.

Although drinkers’ potential losses will be capped, possibly at about £10 a night, critics have accused ministers of acting irresponsibly by promoting a dangerous cocktail of gaming and alcohol.

“Gambling and drink together are a heady mix — the more you drink, the less rational you become,? said Mark Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University. “I’ve got nothing against playing poker but if you’re going to do it and drink heavily, don’t be surprised if you bet more than you thought you were going to bet. Alcohol is a drug and like any drug it impairs judgment.?

Hugo Swire, the shadow culture secretary, said: “With the growing problem of personal debt, the government should be warning about the dangers of gambling addiction rather than encouraging the dangerous mixture of poker and alcohol in pubs.?

The move comes amid a surge in popularity in poker with independent research suggesting as many as 5.8m people now gamble online; other studies estimate an average of £1,000 a year is staked on internet gambling, much of it on poker.

While internet gambling has effectively been outlawed by America, Labour wants to turn Britain into a “world leader? in the field. The Gambling Act 2005 will lift the ban on online gaming businesses being based in the UK from next year.

Under laws that date from 1968, pubs have to seek permission from licensing authorities to host poker, bingo, bridge and other so-called “equal chance? games, where the outcome is more dependent on luck than skill. Dominoes and cribbage are exempt from the rules.

Although only “low? stakes or prizes are allowed in these games, there is no clear definition of what this constitutes. In practice it has meant that participants in most pub poker games play for points instead of cash.

Under the new Gambling Act pubs will no longer require a special permit for the games from next autumn, a move that critics fear will open the floodgates for “gambling dens? to spring up on every high street. Games that involve staking against a banker such as pontoon, blackjack and roulette will remain illegal under the new rules.

The provisions of the act will also prevent pubs from deriving a direct financial benefit from card games by, for example, charging fees to participants, and will stipulate that children must be excluded from any games.

Many pubs are already signing up to national poker leagues in the belief that holding regular events will provide a boost to bar takings. Critics are concerned that it will be impossible to police as bar staff will be too busy to check whether players are sticking to the limits on losses.

The culture department said: “The government does not believe permitting people to play poker in pubs for very small stakes (a few pounds per head) puts at risk any of the three objectives of the Gambling Act: protecting the vulnerable, keeping out crime and keeping games fair.?

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