The Minister for Justice may be targetting casinos, but the real rise in gambling in Ireland is happening online, writes John Byrne
Oliver Boyce is a 31-year-old systems consultant living in west Dublin. He makes a comfortable living. Like most of his family, he doesn't drink or smoke and is a blood donor. He is chatty, smart and self-effacing.
He is also one of the growing number of talented Irish players making a name in the world of poker. This year, he received €50,000 for winning the World Speed Poker Open Championship 2005 (in which contestants have 15 seconds to make decisions). He has qualified for this summer's World Series in Las Vegas, one of the world's most prestigious poker events which sees celebrities such as Robert De Niro paying huge sums just to enter the competition. Oliver Boyce will play an average of 14 hours of poker a day while there. He won't be the only Irish poker player in the competition this year – he'll be joined by a number of others, including Andy Black, who came fifth in last year's competition.
"It's just a hobby," says Oliver Boyce. "I'd say I play about 15 or 20 hours a week. I wouldn't go full-time at it, because it would put too much pressure on me. But it still wouldn't take the fun out of it."
Although there's a strong tradition of card-playing in his family – he's been at it since he was six years old – it was not until a business trip to Las Vegas a few years ago, when he first saw "Texas Hold 'em" poker being played, that he began to focus on poker.
He now plays most days; during the week he plays internet poker, and at the weekend he plays "live" in competitions and in casinos.
Oliver Boyce's interest in poker has coincided with a surge in popularity in the game in Ireland. The number of casinos in Ireland has risen rapidly over the past few years to cater for increased demand. Business man Dermot Desmond invested €5 million in a "Sporting Emporium" just off Grafton St in Dublin, which opened last October and aims to attract 10,000 members within its first year. Although it operates as a private members' club, any member of the public is eligible for membership as long as he/she is over 21 and has a passport.
But it's online where the real growth in poker is happening. Big name bookmakers such as William Hill and Paddy Power now have dedicated online poker and gambling sites, and are recording huge numbers using them. Last February, Paddy Power set up paddypowerpoker.com, a dedicated website for Irish poker enthusiasts. It has enjoyed "phenomenal growth" since then, according to a spokesman, and there are now 20,000 registered users on the site. All you need to join the site is a credit card, and there is no limit to the amount you can bet.
"Money is the only thing you need to play poker," says Oliver Boyce. "You pay an entry fee to win a seat. In the top competitions you can qualify by beating other players and then you only pay about €200 or €300 to enter. But you can also buy a place at the table if you're rich enough. As a player you're ranked by how much money you make.
"Live poker is slower than internet poker, and you need more concentration and more skill in reading what another player is going to do. You can chat to players, find out a bit about them. If a guy has read a particular book about playing, you can tell what kind of a player he's going to be. You can read body language too, you can see a guy rubbing his nose or biting his nails. The live poker industry looks down on internet poker. It's a lot quicker, and it's just about what cards you have and how much money you have."
While Oliver Boyce spends a large part of his spare time playing poker, he doesn't consider himself a gambler. "You can always spot a gambler a mile away," he says. "They'll always look at a roulette table when they're walking past it in a casino. They can't resist it. They just seem to love gambling on anything.
"There is a social buzz about [poker], and that's one of the things I really enjoy about it. And there are more and more women getting involved. I'd say nearly a quarter of those I meet are women. But some of the other poker guys – they just live for now. They have no mortgages, pensions, anything like that. They just live for the short-term. I couldn't do that, that's not my kind of thing."
The increase in popularity of poker in Ireland, and the growth of internet gambling more generally, has alarmed some groups. A spokesperson for Gamblers Anonymous, a group for those with gambling problems, says, "We have noticed an increase in numbers of people coming to us over the past two or three years.
"People who are coming to us are coming with different types of gambling problems – internet gambling, casinos, virtual racing (computerised racing which takes place in a bookmakers in between races). The people are a little bit younger. They have greater access to credit, and people can gamble anonymously from computers using credit cards. It's much easier to acquire a history of problem-gambling quickly. In terms of the type of people that come to us, it's mostly men – say 97 per cent. And roughly around 90 per cent of those would be working class."
The Rutland Centre, one of Ireland's best-known addiction treatment centres, has seen new types of gambling addicts coming for treatment. "There are more young people coming to us with problems with online gambling, and the casinos in town. We get calls from anxious parents worried about their children who are using the internet to run up debt," said a spokeman for the centre.
The Money Advice and Budgeting Service (MABS), an organisation which was set up by the government in the early 1990s to deal with the problem of loan sharks, believes that the current economic situation makes it easier to get into trouble financially. "We have a booming economy. Credit is very easily available. People have very high expectations, and the cost of living is very high. This means it is easier to get into debt. We are hearing anecdotal evidence from dealing with money advisers on a daily level that there are more people getting into trouble with internet gambling."
Ireland is a gambling-friendly country. In 1975, betting duty, which is payable on bets placed in licensed betting offices, was 20 per cent. By 2001, it was at five per cent, when the Exchequer yield was €68 million out of a total bet of €1.36 billion. The following year betting duty was cut to just two per cent. The state took in €48 million, but a lot more money was bet – a total of €2.4 billion. And as of July this year, betting duty will fall to one per cent.
With these generous rates, it's a good time to be a bookie in Ireland. But the really good news for the likes of Paddy Power is that online gambling companies are registered abroad, so no betting duty is paid to the Irish state at all.
Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, recently promised to make changes to the Gaming and Lotteries legislation "to address the phenomenon of casino-style operations in the State". He said on 24 April, "I have concerns about the enforceability of the present law as it applies to these types of operations and the scope for their use for money-laundering. I am preparing proposals for changes in the law that will facilitate the prosecution of offences and the closing down of establishments engaged in such operations."
While this might curb the tendencies of some casinos, it will do little to curb Ireland's growing love of gambling, and any problems that might occur as a result.
"Gambling is a secret addiction," says the Rutland Centre. "There are very few tell-tale signs. It's not like alcohol addiction where behaviour is erratic while under the influence, or you can smell alcohol from a person's breath. With internet gambling, all you need to do is have a credit card and open up an account. Nobody knows until all the money is gone and the bank or somebody else comes looking to chase a debt."