GAME OVER: PokerStars Announces Pullout of Russian Market in Light of Ukraine Invasion

PokerStars announced on Wednesday that the company would no longer be operating in the Russian market.

The fallout of the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues to affect business operations around the world. Many international companies have pulled out of Russia in recent days and that includes online poker operators.

The latest came on Wednesday with PokerStars announcing it would be pulling out of the country.

“Important update: we are suspending all our services in Russia,” the company noted on Twitter.

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PokerStars, partypoker out in Russia

The withdrawal of one of the world’s largest poker operators will leave many players in the country looking for another option. The move also follows partypoker exiting the market in early February.

Party had legal concerns regarding continued operations in the market.

“It’s correct we are removing services from various locations due to regulatory issues,” party Twitch and community manager Colette Stewart noted on the site’s Discord server.

Stars now seems to be continuing that trend with war raging in Ukraine. As PokerScout reported last week, operators aren’t scheduling live events in the country after the invasion. 

Party, GGPoker, 888poker, and the World Poker Tour have no events planned in the country at the moment. PokerStars also canceled the Sochi stop on the European Poker Tour that was planned in March.

“PokerStars can confirm that EPT Sochi has been canceled,” the company noted in a statement to PokerScout. “An event will not be held in Sochi until such time that it is safe for staff and players, and appropriate to do so.”

Punishing Putin or punishing players?

As more companies exit the Russian market, some critics argue these types of moves are punishing the Russian people instead of President Vladimir Putin. Others argue pressure on the country as a whole might help bring change to the country’s leadership.

As for poker, the country had been a growing market for online poker prior to the arms buildup and invasion. In the wake of increased sanctions on the country, online poker companies may also now see the country as just too challenging to continue operating.

As of now, at least PokerStars and partypoker see too much risk in taking on Russian players. No other operators had yet announced ceasing operations in the country as of Wednesday.

Several players on Twitter urged 888poker and GGPoker to follow the lead of PokerStars and partypoker. However, those companies’ haven’t made any announcements regarding operations in the country.

Poker players follow events in Ukraine

Like many around the world, poker players have watched events play out in Ukraine. Many players recently followed the plight of Ukrainian poker player and entrepreneur Eugene Katchalov

The former WPT Five Diamond World Poker Classic winner was born in Ukraine, but his family moved to the United States when he was 2 years old. Katchalov moved back to Ukraine five years ago, but sought to get his family out of the country when fighting began.

As he and his family drove to the border, Katchalov gave a first-hand account of what was happening in the country. 

“Just saw two military helicopters fly overhead,” he noted. “Certainly haven’t felt nerves like this since 9/11 in Manhattan.”

The family eventually crossed into Hungary. Katchalov has continued offering updates from friends and family still in the country.

Poker Tours Not Scheduling Events in Russia After Invasion of Ukraine; PokerStars Shelves EPT Sochi

Poker operators and tours aren't running or scheduling events in Russia after the country invaded Ukraine last week.

The events playing out in Ukraine have brought international sanctions and concern as Russian military forces continue shelling Ukrainian cities. While poker may seem trivial in such a situation, the war has affected the prospects of Russian poker.

The country has not only been a hotbed for online poker, but the ski resort town of Sochi has also hosted numerous live poker series.

With the invasion of Ukraine still underway, PokerScout reached out to operators about their stance on the country. Many tours are avoiding the country as of now in light of recent events.

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PokerStars cancels EPT Sochi stop

Online poker began growing in Russia, as well as in Ukraine, during the poker boom of the 2000s. And in recent years,  Sochi has become a popular spot for major poker tournaments.

The city is the largest resort city in Russia and situated on the river of the same name along the Black Sea in southern Russia. 

PokerStars announced in September that the upcoming European Poker Tour event in Sochi would return from March 18-27. Those plans have now changed in light of recent events.

“PokerStars can confirm that EPT Sochi has been canceled,” the company noted in a statement to PokerScout. “An event will not be held in Sochi until such time that it is safe for staff and players, and appropriate to do so.”

The company says qualifiers for the event can email [email protected] with any queries.

A look at other tours and operators

PokerStars isn’t the only company to comment on their plans for Russia. The World Poker Tour has also run events in Sochi in the past as well.

The WPTDeepStacks Sochi ran in August with 413 entries and a $576,815 prize pool. Maksim Skripkin came out on top for $114,187.

The WPT now has no immediate plans in the country. That includes the Main Tour and the recently-rebranded DeepStacks, now known as WPT Prime.

“While the World Poker Tour has held events in Sochi in the past, our 20th anniversary season does not include any stops there,” WPT Vice President of Global Tour Management Angelica Hael said.

Partypoker has also run events in Sochi in the past. The company offered no comment on the issue this week, but has no live events scheduled in Russia, according  to the partypoker Live schedule.

The company announced earlier this year that it had completely exited the Russian market, citing legal concerns.

GGPoker had no comment on the issue as well. The operator has no plans for live events at the moment, so Russia wasn’t a consideration. 888poker and Unibet also have no events scheduled in Russia.

Players watch situation with concern

Like many around the world, poker players have been watching events unfold in Ukraine. The country’s winningest player, Eugene Katchalov, Tweeted his efforts to get out of the country last week.

At age 2, Katchalov moved to the United States and is an American citizen but moved back five years ago. He’s now been updating others via Twitter about the situation on the ground.

Many players responded and commented that they were happy to see his family was now safe.

Despite the invasion and his own situation, Katchalov placed blame not on the Russian people but on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Hate the war, loathe Putin, but don’t hate Russian people or culture!” he noted.

The country’s efforts at fighting off Russian forces have impressed many, including Daniel Negreanu.

As of Tuesday, the situation remains critical for Ukrainians. Russian forces continued bombing residential areas and military facilities alike, according to media reports. More than 1 million people have already fled the country.

In His Own Words: Poker Player Eugene Katchalov Details Escaping Russian Invasion in Ukraine

As the events of the Russian invasion of Ukraine unfolded, poker player Eugene Katchalov offered a first-hand account of escaping with his family.

As those around the world watched events play out in Ukraine over the weekend, poker player Eugene Katchalov experienced the war first-hand. The country’s winningest poker player documented his attempts to get his family out of the country on Twitter.

Following the feed was surreal and offered an insider’s look at what many in the country are facing. He faced quite a journey as Russian forces moved in and began bombarding major cities.

Katchalov, who divides his time between Ukraine and the United States, started the string of posts by seeking guidance on reaching American authorities. He wasn’t sure on how and when to get out of the country.

“​​Hey guys, I’m in Kiev, Ukraine,” he noted. “Woke up to the sound of a distant explosion and decided to leave the city with my wife. Gathering in a small village with some friends to decide on next steps. Anyone know how to get in touch with the US embassy to advise on suggested next steps?”

That question kicked off an attempt to secure safety for his family. The journey would last for several days and his Tweets offered a real look at the plight Ukrainians were facing throughout the last few days.

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Moving out

Eugene Katchalov at the tables on the WPT. (photo courtesy WPT)

Many poker fans may recognize Katchalov for his win in the World Poker Tour’s Five Diamond World Poker Classic in 2007 for $2.5 million. He is Ukraine’s winningest poker player with $9.2 million and a former PokerStars ambassador. In recent years, Katchalov has led some entrepreneurial efforts as well.

But over the last few days, simply getting his family to safety was the task at hand and the ordeal began on Feb. 24. After speaking with US embassies in Ukraine and Poland, there were no easy options.

Officials just told him it was wise to leave. Finding gas and supplies became a struggle as he and his family looked to get out.

The family stopped in a small village to stay a while and assess what to do next. The threat of invasion and war seemed all around.

“Just saw two military helicopters fly overhead,” he noted. “Certainly haven’t felt nerves like this since 9/11 in Manhattan.”

Seeking safety

As the events continued playing out, Katchalov not only offered insight on his own passage out of the country, but also an insider’s perspective. His sister-in-law’s family in  Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, hid in a basement as the city underwent Russian attacks.

Friends in Kharkiv and other cities attempted to flee as shelling began. Katchalov was especially worried about friends in Kiev who had newborn babies.

At one point, Katchalov decides to head to Poland. With gasoline in short supply, he siphons fuel from his other cars to take along on the trip. The threat of Russian forces is a constant threat and weighs heavily on the family as the journey begins.

Along his route west toward Poland, Katchalov stopped at eight different gas stations. All were out of fuel, but at the ninth he was able to top off his tank. He also had another canister in reserve in case fuel became an even bigger concern.

The family kept driving, avoiding larger cities along the way. Those would be more likely to be targeted by Russian forces. Reports also came that airports were being bombarded as well.

Men ages 18-60 were made to stay and defend the country. Katchalov is a US citizen however, and was hoping to get his family across the border. Despite getting little sleep for days, the Katchalovs kept moving.

“Not hungry, not thirsty, and not tired even with all this driving,” he posted on Feb. 25. “Amazing how your body naturally produces cortisol and keeps you focused on the sole mission – get to the border … #Ukraine.”

A change in plans, constant concerns

As Katchalov continued driving through the Ukrainian countryside, social media played a role in helping. He asked followers where Americans could cross the border into Poland.

Several responses offered helpful information and Katchalov continued the trek. The threat of the Russian invasion stayed top of mind and a constant threat.

That Lviv border option for Amercans caused a change in plans. The family would head to Hungary instead.

“Every update is about some new city or territory being bombed behind or parallel to us,” Katchalov noted. “Feels like we’re driving and there’s a great fire right behind us.”

At one point, the family learned that a missile landed close to his sister-in-law’s home. Thankfully, the weapon didn’t explode and simply lodged in the asphalt in the middle of an intersection. It’s a surreal scene.

As if worries about war and running out of gas weren’t enough, there were other concerns. The family heard of bandits along the route stealing money from those looking to flee.

The Katchalovs divided up their own cash and hid it in different places in the car. They kept going.

Driving and reporting

The Katchalov family drove for hours and hours. At one point the family was stuck behind a long line of cars on a dirt road – all in the middle of similar experiences.

A parade of cars also rolled in the opposite direction – men dropping their families off at the border and returning to fight.

At one point, Katchalov received a tip about a point on the border to enter. The family continued moving. Along the way, Katchalov offered updates on the scene in the country.

After 12 hours of continuous driving, the Katchalovs still hadn’t reached the border. But he remained confident and stayed the course.

About three hours from the border, the family hit heavy traffic. There were reports of nearby towns also being attacked.

“Whatever fear I’m going through now, it’s literally nothing compared with what our friends and family are going through in Kiev and Kharkiv, which are both currently under literal siege,” Katchalov posts. “I fear what may happen overnight. Keep them in your hearts Ukraine.”

Closing in on the border

Getting closer to the border turned into a drawn-out ordeal. Checkpoint officers with big guns checked papers. At 120 kilometers (75 miles) from the border, the family gets stuck in a line of traffic that doesn’t move for 30 minutes.

It’s easy to imagine how nerve wracking the situation had to be. The border lies just ahead, but will they ever really get there? And when they do, will the Katchalov family be able to cross?

At one point the family moves only about 200 meters in two hours. Stories of Ukrainian bravery seem to keep Katchalov motivated and proud.

“Hearing so many stories of regular people young and old picking up weapons and volunteering to defend their home,” he says. “Absolutely mind blowing how supportive everyone is during such an awful time. I do think the Ukrainian spirit was greatly underestimated.”

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Safety at last, sharing his experience

As they waited to cross into Hungary, the family even hears from Russian friends who are shocked at the invasion and express their sympathy. Other friends in Ukraine reported shooting and explosions throughout the night.

The Katchalov family ended up sleeping in their car through the night as they waited to cross into Hungary. A short time later that finally happened. 

Katchalov says he decided to Tweet the entire experience so those around the world could see the real situation on the ground. That included some reports from “friends and family who are still there fighting desperately to protect the only home they know.”

Where does the family go from here? That isn’t known, but at least they are out of harm’s way for now. Katchalov hopes at some point they can actually return.

“I was born in Ukraine but immigrated to the US as a small child,” he noted. “Moved back to Ukraine about five years ago and absolutely fell in love with the country. I hope the situation somehow resolves so that I can come back. “

In the days that followed, Katchalov continued sharing first-hand news on the ground from the country. That has ranged from Ukrainian forces’ successes to Russian bombardments near family members.

A friend whose parents live near Kharkiv said a bridge right next to them was about to be bombed so no one could go in or out of the city. Another post noted a woman giving birth in a bomb shelter.

Despite his own ordeal, Katchalov knows many of his countrymen are experiencing much worse than what his family went through. He has faith in his country’s ability to rise to the occasion in such a dangerous time and many around the world are with the Ukrainian people.