New gambling laws could raise the stakes for poker

Ask Karel Kruška to describe what it takes to be a good poker player, and he’ll tell you it has as much to do with personal temperament as it does with raw talent.

„Czech poker players are usually ambitious young guys,“ said Kruška, chairman of Hot Springs Poker Club Teplice and a member of the executive council of the Czech Association of Poker Clubs. „Many of them have a gambling gene. Undoubtedly they are intelligent and playful [but] a certain degree of narcissism and extroversion is also common.“

With poker having surged in local popularity over the past two years – association officials estimate that 60,000 Czechs play poker, with roughly 1,000 organized into 19 official clubs across the country – many aficionados hope that steely confidence comes in handy when facing their latest challenge, one that’s considerably bigger than the game itself.

Members of the Czech Association of Poker Clubs are pushing the Finance Ministry to recognize the game as an official sport, and have enlisted legal representatives from Ernst & Young to aid in their campaign.

As a result of these discussions, ministry officials say they are preparing to introduce a new „lottery act“ that will streamline national regulations for gambling, which is currently prohibited outside of casinos. At present, it is unknown whether poker game restrictions will be altered as part of the new legislation, which officials expect to release for government approval late this year.

„The Finance Ministry does not recognize the official sport,“ ministry spokeswoman Zuzana Chocholová said of poker. She would not comment on the contents of the upcoming legislation, saying only that poker outside of casinos is permitted in the Czech Republic, provided the game is played without any monetary stakes.

Players disagree with the ministry’s assessment of the game, saying that although large sums of money are often involved, poker itself is comparable with other sports, though relying on mathematical and psychological skills as opposed to physical.

„Ministry officials don’t understand that poker, in all its complexity, is not gambling as much as a skill game in which good players win and bad players lose,“ said Kruška, whose association organizes regional and national championship tournaments yearly. „This conservative attitude and unfamiliarity has turned into doubts.“

According to Chocholová, the hosting of poker tournaments, as well as the fact that the game has only recently become popular in the country, could potentially prevent the game’s reclassification.

„The association is trying to exempt poker tournaments from the lottery legislation,“ she said, „These poker tournaments are the phenomenon of the past two years, and [permission is given] just for tournaments in casinos.“

But other players echoed Kruška’s sentiments, saying that poker has all but replaced the traditional Czech mariáš as the country’s most popular card game, and likening the necessary skills to those of successful archers or equestrians.

Playing the cards right

„Of course, it is not all just chance,“ said Peter, a Sydney, Australia, native who’s played poker for over three years. „There is a considerable level of skill involved, which is why you have the same players doing well at major tournaments.“

Added Jon, a British native and poker player for six years, „Most of the players I’ve met here play simply as a way of socializing with friends, or to meet new and like-minded people.“

Poker fans predict that officially reclassifying the game as a sport will provide many benefits for both new and seasoned players. Some allege that many area casinos are mafia-run fronts targeting foreign tourists, and recognition as a sport will cut down on such operations by ensuring appropriate state regulation.

„I feel that the benefit for Czech poker institutions would come from having a better controlling body,“ said Jon, adding that he only plays at the Prague Hilton in lieu of the city’s other casinos. „I expect this would be organized by the state if they recognize poker as a sport.“

Others hope for further advantages as well.

„I don’t believe it’s as easy to find poker-playing venues in the Czech Republic as it is in Sydney,“ Peter said. „I think any official recognition by a government body would definitely benefit Czech poker institutions, as well as increase the player base in the Czech Republic, both of which I’m strongly in favor of.“

Players credit the recent wave in popularity to a glamorized portrayal of „card sharks“ in Hollywood films such as the 2001 blockbuster Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels. Most Czech players are between ages 18 and 30, and are overwhelming male, with women comprising only 10 percent of the national demographic. While there are a few professional players living in the Czech Republic, most see it simply as recreation and a way to escape the monotony of their working lives.

„Young people see poker as a form of entertainment and even a lifestyle,“ Kruška said, adding that Internet gaming helps to introduce the game to new fans each day.