China Bans Mobile Poker, But The Chinese Poker Scene Will Go On

Playing poker in China became much tougher this month. The country’s video game licensing bureau, the State Administration of Press and Publications, effectively banned mobile poker, leaving millions of players out of the game.

How the Chinese mobile poker ban happened

Last year, the government agency suspended the licensing of games for nine months. Officially, the suspension came as part of a government initiative to combat youth video game addiction.

The State Administration of Press and Publications, which is overseen by the Communist Party‘s propaganda department, has approved 795 new video games in the first quarter of 2019. However, none of those approved games include poker.

The effect of the hiatus on approvals has already shown. As the South China Morning Post noted,

“China’s gaming market, the world’s largest, recorded its slowest revenue growth in 2018 in at least a decade.”

Any company hoping to market a game in China must be licensed by the government. So, unfortunately, those titles featuring poker or card games are out of luck.

At a time when the game is an upswing, the ban certainly disappoints players and those in the industry.

Poker in China WAS a growing market

With 1.3 billion people, China represents a huge opportunity to grow the poker industry. Poker’s popularity in China had been growing in recent years, mostly online as a social game.

Gambling is illegal in the country, but social poker offered an alternative to heading to Macau or Hong Kong. In a 2016 Business Insider article, Global Poker League founder Alex Dreyfus said:

Texas Hold’em is not part of the cultural roots of China, but this has changed in the last few years thanks to the introduction of free poker applications on mobile phones. Therefore, you have new generations of white-collar, educated and influential individuals that love the game and play regularly.”

At the time, he estimated 100 million Chinese citizens had downloaded poker games onto their devices. However, the Chinese government is now looking to stop that. 

According to Niko Reports, regulators launched a “crackdown on titles in the poker and mah-jong genre after China’s government became concerned about real world money being used in these games.” 

Beyond the ban, as of June 1, even discussing or promoting the game on social media will be outlawed. Some in the industry expect the moves to have a major negative impact on the Asian poker market. As Hong Kong Poker Players Association managing director Stephen Lai told the Morning Post,

“(The Asian market) was growing very fast, (but) now it is going to be more difficult for operators in Asia to organise poker events. Chinese players make up over half of the field.” 

An inside perspective about the Chinese poker scene

Professional poker player Xuan Liu and her family immigrated to Toronto when she was 5. Born in Tianjin, China,  Liu has almost $2 million in live tournament winnings and has played regularly in Asia.

On mainland China, poker has flourished even in a live atmosphere. Gambling is illegal on the mainland, but underground card rooms and even casinos do exist.

Liu believes those operations will continue.

“There has been significant interest in poker in China for awhile, but it’s always operated in the mainland in various shades of gray,” she said. “Those who really want to play will always find places to do so, whether it’s through the various local clubs that hold games, or online through VPNs and cashless play money sites.”

Liu also emphasized the importance of Chinese nationals playing in high profile events. A Chinese face at the EPT or the WSOP is critical to the growth of the game’s popularity on the mainland.

China’s Online Poker Black Friday Having Live Casino Effects

City of Dreams Casino in Macau

China will ban all forms of online social media poker games as of June 1 according to numerous reports.

The ban could have a catastrophic effect on the burgeoning poker industry in the region, which relies on social media poker to build awareness for the game.

At this point in time, there are no real-money poker sites allowed in China so play money poker is essentially the only game in town.

To make matters worse the government is also cracking down on any mention of poker on social media. IAdditionally, the game will no longer be recognized as a competitive sport.

The ban could stifle Chinese poker in its infancy and pundits are already likening it to a Chinese Black Friday.

Huge hit for all of Asia

The potentially devastating effects of a play money ban in China could have ramifications for numerous neighboring Asian countries.

Local tournaments in nearby countries regularly receive a sizable influx of players who qualified for events through play money promotions in China.

There’s also a good chance the special administrative region of Macau will take a significant hit from the ban.

First off, it appears the special PokerStars-branded poker room at the City of Dreams in Cotai will be closing.

According to reports, it was the City of Dreams parent company Melco Resorts & Entertainment that terminated the deal. The City of Dreams PokerStars LIVE poker room operated for five years.

Meanwhile, the big online players in China, including the massive Tencent Gaming, have already started to remove some of their poker apps from the Android, Apple App store, and WeChat store.

Hong Kong-based Boyaa Interactive, which runs the Boyaa Poker Tour, has already seen its share price drop 12 percent, according to a report from Inside Asia Gaming.

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More than virtual currency at stake

The ban on free-to-play poker may seem unnecessarily harsh but there are a few factors that likely contributed to the Chinese government’s decision to move for an outright ban.

In the past play money poker has been used as a way to play real-money games in China and especially Hong Kong using apps called agents.

It’s a concept that’s largely unfamiliar to most western poker markets but the agents basically allowed players to wager real money on free-to-play sites.

While the free-to-play sites were completely devoid of real money and consisted entirely of virtual currency the agents would allow players to put real currency behind virtual bets.

The practice was particularly popular in Hong Kong where several high-stakes online private games allegedly ran.

It’s unclear at this point how much agents played into the government’s decision to ban free-to-play poker.

Last gasp for poker in China?

The ban wasn’t completely out of nowhere, as the government has shown a reluctance to permit the game in the past. Chinese National Police raided a PokerStars-backed APPT event in Nanjing in 2015.

There’s no telling where poker in China goes from here but it goes without saying that it’s a huge step back for the game.

The complete legal framework for the upcoming ban hasn’t been released so some of the social game developers are hopeful there will still be space to operate.

Beijing’s Ourgame, one of the biggest players in Asian poker and owner of the World Poker Tour, released a statement saying it will conduct an in-depth examination of the new law.

It’s unknown what will happen to the numerous live events that PokerStars runs in Macau. Interest in the game remains high. The most recent Macau Millions main event attracted nearly 2,500 players.

It’s also unclear what will happen to the Alisports-backed International Poker Tour. The IPT offers various poker tournaments around the country combined with other mind sports like chess and bridge.

Photo by Nataliya Nazarova / Shutterstock.com