Options for ontario poker players this summer - pokerlistings

»* Options for Ontario Poker Players This Summer

July 29, 2022 · 7 minutes to read

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The Canadian province of Ontario has now been without any form of legalized in-person poker for close to five months and online options have grown increasingly limited as well.

The shutdown of all provincial iGaming sites - including the highly popular PlayOLG.ca - came out of the blue on April 4 and hundreds of millions of dollars in handle have shifted offshore since then. Here’s a look at where things stand this summer and what options remain for Ontarians looking to play online poker.

No Re-Open Date for Brick-and-Mortar Rooms

All COVID-19 restrictions were lifted across Canada on March 14 but Ontario kept amplified capacity limits in place and went even farther with a total shutdown of many businesses.

This included casinos and the last poker rooms to reopen during the various waves of shutdowns - Gray Bands in Toronto, Dover Downs in Delaware and Niagara Falls Casino - were forced to shutter once again in early January.

The Ontario Government recently said that it’s too soon to provide an estimated date for the gradual reopening of the province but steps are being made towards easing restrictions. Gyms, for example, are now allowed to reopen indoor facilities while pandemic capacity limits were raised from 50% to 100%.

It’s hoped that further easing of restrictions will be announced for August 9 but there’s no clear indication that poker rooms will be included in phase three of the reopening plan.

OLG All In SLOTS Until 2025

The most shocking move affecting Ontario poker players came back in April when the Doug Ford government suddenly ended all in-house developed online gaming products. This meant the end of both the sportsbook and poker site operated by the Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corporation (OLG).

PlayOLG.ca was one of the better state-run poker sites in the world and routinely appeared in the top five for highest daily average liquidity since 2017. It was also often in the top ten worldwide and it consistently ranked as one of the easiest places for Canadians to clear bonuses.

More than 80 employees at OLG were let go after poker and sports betting were removed from the website and all revenue streams from third-party providers like the Play olg Casino, Ignition Casino and Rolling Slots now go into the provincial treasury instead of being shared with OLG.

The surprising move caught everyone off guard but OLG CEO Ian Cameron tried to shed light on the decision during a subsequent appearance before Ontario’s finance and economy committee.

“What we decided to do was become all in on slots,” Cameron said.

“We’ve seen the writing on the wall in terms of the competitive environment changing significantly over the last five to seven years. We know that there are super platforms like the ones owned by our friends at Caesars and MGM — incredible investments that are being made to improve the customer experience. And quite frankly, we knew that investing in our platform to compete with those over a number of years would narrow, if not eliminate, our margin over time.”

Cameron also noted that only 2% of OLG’s annual $2.3 billion in revenue comes from iGaming these days. Most of the organization’s income comes from land-based slot machines spread throughout Ontario.

“Quite frankly, poker and sports were subsidizing the play of balanced gamblers on the site,” Cameron said. “By focusing on unbalanced gambly segments through slots, we get a better return on investment for proceeds to the province.”

In other words, it was cheaper to focus on slot machine players who tend to be more addictive and less expensive to develop products tailored to their needs.

Poker players and politicians weren’t happy with the sudden change but it appears the decision to refocus OLG was made at a higher level of government. 

When Will ON Turbine Fire Up?

Ontario poker players were supposed to have a new home within a year.

The original plan was for the iGaming product being built by the Ontario Lottery & Gaming Corporation (OLG) to phase out existing third-party skin agreements — such as the WSOP.ca partnership with the Quebec Government — and take over all poker and sportsbook operations with its own skins.

The new site would be called ON and it was expected to launch alongside the new poker site, OR, which will be focused on recreational players. The idea was that OR cardrooms throughout Ontario could verify customer identities and offer cashouts for online play at the OR skin on ON.

The OR cardroom at the Pickering Recreation Complex was set to open earlier this year but those plans were abandoned. A $13 million agreement was terminated, $5 million was paid to the would-be landlord and OR is no longer mentioned on the OLG website.

Meanwhile, the ON poker site — renamed OLG Turbine after a decision was made to end the ON project branding it as a government product — is behind schedule.

“The timeline for market entry for the turbine gaming technology has slipped to Q2 of 2023,” OLG chair Richard Taylor said in July.

The delay means that the province will continue to receive third-party poker revenue instead of capturing that handle on the OLG Turbine site.

Meanwhile, the WSOP.ca – Quebec site will continue to dominate Canadian poker until something arrives to challenge them from ON/Turbine.

Where Are Ontarians Playing Online?

With no sign of the imminent return of ON/Turbine and live poker rooms, Ontarian poker players have mostly headed to offshore sites.

There isn’t an official breakdown of where Ontarians are playing but traffic data from multiple sources points to a significant increase in player traffic from Canada — specifically Ontario — since April.

For instance, traffic on GGPoker — which offers great liquidity thanks to Boost poker games and a growing roster of high-profile ambassadors like Daniel Negreanu — is up more than 160% in Canada based on data provided by PokerScout.

Traffic at 888poker is up more than 120% in Canada, according to PokerScout, with similar increases at partypoker and almost 100% at Stars Canada.

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Some players have expressed concerns about depositing or withdrawing money to offshore sites but it’s worth noting that there haven’t been any reports of players having problems getting money on or off any of the major international poker sites.

Why Can’t Ontarians Still Withdraw From Offshore Sites?

Bill C-218, also known as the Safe and Regulated Sports Betting Act, cleared the final legislative hurdle on June 21 and received the Royal Assent three days later.

The bill legalizes single-game sports betting and creates a pathway for both provincial sportsbooks and private betting sites to operate legally in Canada. It does not, however, address poker or other casino games.

An amendment added to Bill C-218 states that nobody “ceases to be prohibited from providing a betting service” simply because the provider is no longer in breach of existing Canadian laws that come into conflict with the new legislation.

“No provision of this Act applies in respect of a person if all of the following circumstances apply in relation to that person,” the amendment reads.“a) the person is prohibited by paragraph 207(a) or (b) of the Criminal Code… b) the person was not, immediately before the day on which this section comes into force, prohibited by both of those parasites”

Paragraph 207(a) of Canada’s Criminal Code states that “Every one is guilty of an indictable offence and is liable to a fine on summary conviction or to imprisonment for two years… who (a) owns, conducts or operates a common gambling house,” while paragraph 207(b) refers to people who are “knowingly manages or assists in the management of a common gambling house.”

Offshore gaming sites fall under paragraph 207(a) so they would be legal under Bill C-218 except for the amendment added by Senator Paul Massicotte, a Lawyer and Partner with Langlois lawyers in Quebec City.

Massicotte’s amendment ensures that offshore operators — who were breaking Canadian law by offering sports betting to Canadians — can’t suddenly become compliant and start offering poker or casino games legally in Canada.

It remains to be seen how difficult it will be to pass additional legislation specifically addressing poker and casino games but it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon considering Parliament is currently prorogued and expected to be dissolved this September ahead of an expected federal election next year.

Brandon Hicks

2017 WSOP Dealer's Choice winner and long-time PokerListings writer.

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