Poker Sites Suspending Service To Russia Amid Ukraine Conflict

This is a developing story and may be updated.

Last week, PokerStars temporarily suspended access to its international site for players in Russia. Now, 888poker has followed suit.

PokerStars announced the decision the afternoon of Mar. 9, in a brief tweet. It gave no reason for doing so, but it is presumably due to the country’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Many western companies have made similar decisions over the weeks since this latest incursion began on Feb. 24. As of yesterday, that includes the likes of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Starbucks and McDonald’s.

Online poker’s largest market

Suspending service in Russia is not a small decision for PokerStars. In recent years, it has been the single largest market for online poker in the world. Especially at lower stakes, it has been rare to find a table without at least one Russian player, usually more.

According to data from GameIntel (made available through PokerScout), PokerStars traffic has averaged 5200 cash game players, with peaks of over 8000. Those peak numbers tend to come at what is late evening Moscow time.

The impact of excluding Russian players should become apparent quite quickly. Online Poker Report will update with the new traffic numbers once they are available.

Update (03/11): According to PokerScout, PokerStars’ peak traffic on Thursday was around 7200 cash game players, down roughly 1000 from Wednesday. This is substantial, but perhaps a bit less than some might have expected given what a large market it is. We will update next week with the change in the seven-day average.

Update (03/15): Peak traffic numbers have rebounded somewhat, to over 7800 yesterday. However, the seven-day average has already fallen to 4400, a drop of over 15%, and this still includes two days of data from before the market exit. This suggests that Russian players are under-represented at the site’s overall prime time and that peak traffic numbers therefore understate the actual loss.

Update (03/22): GGPoker has dropped Team Russia from its website and suspended service to Russian players though its primary skin. However, it hasn’t suspended service for its larger network, so Russians are still to be found at its table, simply playing through other skins. Meanwhile, PokerStars traffic has actually bounced back slightly, to a 7-day average of 4600, yet GGPoker now beats the former market leader by 40% for around-the-clock traffic and more than 2:1 at prime time.

Poker’s problems in Russia predate the conflict

Even prior to the Ukraine conflict, poker’s status in Russia was in jeopardy. Officially, gambling is illegal in Russia except in four specific regions.

Due to its importance, however, poker operators have historically tended to treat Russia as a gray, rather than a black market. Recently, that has begun to change.

Entain recently pulled Partypoker out of the country, as part of its efforts to show a compliant image.

PokerStars operates on Russian soil

PokerStars took a different tack. It struck a deal with Casino Sochi, in one of those aforementioned designated gambling regions. By hosting its servers locally and forcing Russian players to use a dedicated Sochi client, it got itself on the right side of Russian law.

Unfortunately, that also means the conflict has put it in a more compromising position than other sites. It hasn’t just been doing business with Russian individuals, it has been operating on Russian soil, and therefore generating revenue for the Russian government.

Competitors like GGPoker and 888poker serve Russian players, but they have the same sort of business relationship in place. That may be why they haven’t yet made a similar announcement, at least not yet.

Mar. 15 update: 888 follows suit

Yesterday afternoon, 888poker followed PokerStars’ lead in leaving the Russian market. Like its competitor, it didn’t elaborate much on the decision. It did, however, give its players slightly more forewarning, tweeting simply:

All 888poker operations in Russia will be suspended starting March 15th until further notice.

888 was at one time the clear second-place operator behind PokerStars, but has struggled to an even greater degree than its competitors in the post-boom years.

This leaves Russians with GGPoker as their only regulated poker option for the time being. It was the site with the highest traffic to begin with, and would probably be the beneficiary of PokerStars’ and 888’s lost traffic if it resists pressure to leave Russia as well. On the other hand, failing to leave could have repercussions to the company’s image.

Partypoker and iPoker Network had already ceased serving Russia before the conflict began.

Meanwhile, responses from the PokerStars Twitter account to concerned users have perhaps shed some light indirectly on its rationale for the decision:

Thank you for your follow-up, Nick. Our priority at this time is ensuring the safety and security of our colleagues. We are actively working with and supporting our people on the ground in Ukraine and Russia.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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