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Ukraine Reclassifies Poker as a Sport, Not Gambling

Map of Ukraine

The great American humorist and writer Mark Twain once observed that "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session." It is therefore not really much of a surprise to find out that the same observable phenomenon often carries over into other nations as well. Take the case of Ukraine, which has been making news, at least in poker-playing circles, with its recent decision to remove poker from the list of defined gambling activities, which were and remain prohibited (unless of course the government gets a cut), and to recertify it as an actual sport.

The initial reaction from most people who hear this news is that they had no idea that poker was ever illegal in Ukraine to start with. Their next reaction may be to shrug off the institutional volte face that officially returned the noble game to its proper status of a contest of skill rather than a mindless game of chance. After all, if the status quo ante has been restored before anyone knew it had been changed, does it really matter what happened in between?

It is, of course, easy to fault any government's role in proscribing any form of conduct between consenting adults. So, beyond that, let's take a look at the somewhat convoluted maneuverings for both the original prohibition of poker, a subsequent campaign that led to changes in the law in 2013, and this latest verdict that poker is a game of skill..

History of the Ukraine Poker Ban

Spectacles on Top of Book

To begin with, the inciting event that initiated the virtual proscription of all gambling activity in Ukraine in 2009 was the deaths of nine people in a gambling establishment that caught on fire. The elimination of even online gambling seems like an excessive reaction to this one tragic incident. After all, you aren't likely to burn yourself or a bunch of strangers to death playing internet poker on your couch.

Photo of DnipropetrovskA Fire at a Gambling Hall in the Ukrainian Industrial City of Dnipropetrovsk (Now Dnipro) Led to the Gambling Ban

Legislative intent soon became clearer via a 2010 follow-up law, which illuminated the situation somewhat. With this statute, the government declared its desire to create a unified national gambling authority, which would then license private operators under various onerous conditions, the net result being to wipe out all small-time operators and leave the field clear for well-connected corporate donors.

Poker was not included in the original list of legislatively banned activities, but a simple change-of-heart by a bureaucrat led to its addition to the list in 2010. Due to the extremely widespread nature of the ban, poker aficionados in the country were left with little alternative except to attempt to change the law, play on offshore poker sites, or to move to some neighboring country that had a tighter grasp on the level of skill necessary for success at the  poker tables.

A 2013 suit was successful in overturning the ban but only partially, in that tournament poker was upheld to be a sport, but the Supreme Court of Ukraine remained silent on whether or not cash games were allowed. Still, the reinstatement of tournament poker on the registry of state-recognized-and-approved activities was an important step forward in the post-Soviet society. Meanwhile, no progress had been made on forming the new national gaming authority, and thus, non-tourney poker was still effectively prohibited entirely.

That's the way things remained until August 2018 when the Ministry of Youth and Sport published a new list of recognized sports, which included poker. This decision was taken with little publicity or fanfare, and fans of the game only became aware of it by reading the relevant document.

Poker in Ukraine Outlook

It is refreshing to see some level of sense brought to bear on this matter from a legislative and judicial standpoint. Anyone who has actually played the game is well aware of the exceptional combination of mathematical calculation and deep understanding of human nature that all decent poker players must have at their command in order to succeed at the game. Every player can attest to winning many hands of poker with inferior cards at their disposal, even though everyone naturally prefers a royal flush to an inside straight draw.

Indeed, it is to be hoped Ukraine will recognize that the grooming of a top-quality international reputation for its poker players depends not only upon its current crop of very skillful card sharks, like Eugene Katchalov and Yevgeniy Timoshenko, but also upon the erection of the necessary infrastructure that will encourage new players to take up the sport and hone their skills at both beginner and intermediate levels. Only in this manner can the “farm team” aspects of the newly recognized sport be properly addressed. We may soon see more prestigious poker events and festivals take place in the country now that the legal situation has been clarified, and card rooms might now be able to operate without being seen as shady and disreputable.

Eugene KatchalovEugene Katchalov Is the Winningest Ukrainian Live Tournament Player With $9.2M+ in Cashes

In summation, it seems remarkable that this sort of discussion is taking place in a number of governments worldwide, such as China, which banned all poker social apps in June, and Japan, which added poker to the list of games to be allowed in its future integrated resort-casinos. The idea that poker needs official sanction to be recognized as a contest of skill seems almost as strange as the idea that some passing group of bureaucrats has the authority to ignore reality. Congratulations to Ukraine, and here's hoping that we see similar rulings in favor of poker in other jurisdictions too.

Ukraine-Friendly Online Poker

Personal Computer

Needless to say, international online poker firms don't necessarily pay much attention to government diktats coming out of Kiev, and so there are a number of them that have remained open to Ukrainians even while poker was prohibited as a form of unlawful gambling. We think that Sportsbetting.ag may be the best of the bunch. It has a poker room as well as an attached casino, live casino, sportsbook, and financial betting section. You can get a poker bonus of 100% up to $1,000 on your initial deposit amount. Click over to read our honest Sportsbetting.ag Poker review.