High-Tech Poker Conquers Denmark

Ludomani – there’s your Danish word for the day, meaning “compulsive gambling.” Plagues to society are one of my fascinations, and so will often be encountered on these pages, but make that plagues to rich societies. Europe is after all my self-appointed beat. So don’t expect to come to EuroSavant and find anything about the mysterious Marburg virus stalking Angola, for example. Instead, take a situation where national payment systems evolve to the point where you can send money almost anywhere, almost instantly; and where you can receive anywhere, on your mobile telephone, attractive, easy-to-look-at data. Two “goods,” right?, which must characterize a nation riding modern technology’s leading edge. Unfortunately, as the Danes are now finding out, what all this must also mean, sooner or later, is an explosion of high-tech gambling – and ludomani.

In the Danish case, the villain is poker, and the Danish press has recently sounded the alarm. Now, “poker” and “Denmark” are two concepts most people would not freely-associate right off the top of their heads. As reads coverage from Jan Bjarke Nielsen in Berlingske Tidende, “Once there was a time when poker was played by John Wayne and belonged in a dusty saloon with a couple of bottles of whiskey on the table.” But now poker, particularly the on-line variety, is a Danish national mania – and fast becoming a national pathology. The Danish Poker Federation (their website is only in Danish, as you might expect) was founded only in August of last year, yet now finds itself struggling to preserve the pastime’s good name (such as it is) in the face of its technically-boosted national expansion. This goes as far as urging people not to play, if their only means to do so is high-tech; says Frederik Hostrup-Pedersen, a spokesman for the Federation, in an accompanying BT piece (also written by Nielsen), “That’s dangerous, because it goes so fast and there is the possibility to lose and to win money very rapidly. If people are tempted to play and dream of fast money, poker on the Net and by mobile telephone is very dangerous.”

What makes this such a worrying phenomenon particularly now is in fact the recent first unveiling of money-poker for Danish players available via mobile telephone. Strangely, this isn’t a matter of succumbing to the wiles of some slippery off-shore gambling impresarios hiding away in Trinidad or Pago-Pago. No, the enticement comes from next-door Sweden, from a company called PokerRoom (yeah *sigh* I’m giving you the link), although you don’t really get any true Swedish flavor unless you first click at the bottom on “About Us” and then go investigate “Ongame,” the company that makes their software and which is based in Uppsala. But PokerRoom will surely not be alone in the field for long, report Peder Bjerge and Christian Hüttemeier in Politiken (More Mobile Money-Poker On The Way). Ladbrokes.com, out of London, is fast on its way, for one – anyway, as the authors point out, Danes can already bet with Ladbrokes via their mobile telephones on the results of games in the Danish soccer league (presumably these are inside-the-country mobile calls). And that is just the one follow-on to pioneer PokerRoom that Bjerge and Hüttemeier mention in the article; there will surely be more.

STATE’S PIECE OF THE ACTION

Oh, there is another follow-on they write about there, at the bottom: Dansk Tipstjeneste A/S (“Tips”), the Danish national gambling monopoly. “Until this point our management has said that we will wait on the situation regarding games over mobile telephones,” declares Tips spokesman Thomas Rørsig. “But it could be that a clear political wish will arise for us to enter the market in a way that will be acceptable to those who are worried about compulsive gambling [ludomani].” There is also mention in one of the BT articles referenced above of Danish politicians seeking to modify the law so as to strengthen what is supposed to be Tips’ monopoly on gambling within Denmark – “in an attempt,” BT journalist Nielsen writes, “to dam up the foreign gambling concerns.”

Consider that attitude for a moment, though: This poker-gambling is taking off like wildfire, more and more people are being seduced into betting – and losing – money that they can’t afford to lose; well, let’s make sure that the State gets its share of this action! But maybe that’s not as nonsensical – or cynical – as it may at first seem, as this state monopoly is at least a very common template employed by many European governments to try to control humanity’s often-uncontrollable urges. For instance, lotteries are everywhere national monopolies, as is usually also the case for more run-of-the-mill gambling. (The only legal casinos in the Netherlands, for example, are owned by HollandCasino – the state-run monopoly.) Another famous Scandinavian example is the State’s monopoly on the sale of alcohol in Norway and Sweden. On the other hand, the fatal flaw when it comes to the poker situation in Denmark is clearly that technological advance has really made any sort of state monopoly here untenable. And for all the emphasis on personal liberty and the autonomy of the individual, for all the high-tech progress (in IT and in financial transactions ) that such gaming is evidence of, high Danish officials increasingly are looking into how to bring it to a stop – including the Social Minister in the current Danish cabinet, Eva Kjer Hansen. But how is that possible anymore?

THE AMERICAN RESTRICTIVE APPROACH DEFENDED

That same question must now be puzzling at least every developed country – that is, countries whose citizens have enough disposable income left at the end of most months to potentially be tempted to throw away. In particular, a recently-resolved dispute over Internet gambling under the World Trade Organization (WTO), involving the United States and Antigua – the off-shore home of many Internet gambling sites – brought out the point how relatively restricted American law is in its attempts to keep US citizens away from such gambling. (Curiously, it seems that federal anti-gambling legislation from before the rise of the Internet – such as the “1961 Wire Communications Act” – has mostly been a sufficient basis for proscribing even most of the more-recent high-tech games.) In an analysis of the WTO decision recently published in that case (unfortunately only available to on-line subscribers), the Economist advances the view that, although the US in this case preserved its right to ban on-line gaming to its citizens in most cases, such a position is not sustainable for the long-term out in the practical world. After all, it’s well known that many Americans manage to satisfy their gambling urges through making use of the many on-line facilities made available to them on sites hosted outside the United States, and even find ways to finance these habits despite credit card companies and PayPal refusing to process gambling-debt transactions; “regulating, taxing and letting American firms compete against offshore rivals makes far more sense,” the article opines (actually, in a paraphrase from an academic from the University of Nevada – but a professor from the home state of Las Vegas would say such things, wouldn’t he?).

Denmark has so far taken the opposite approach to the American one, namely allowing its citizens exposure to the siren-call of on-line (and, now, mobile telephone) gaming. But now that the concomitant problems of addiction and financial loss seem to be running out of control, and no less in a country which you would at least be glad to call “sober” (apart from their weekend-night drinking-binges), you can wonder whether that “hands off” stance really “makes far more sense” after all.

NEED HELP YOURSELF? READ DANISH?

But let’s finish here where we began – ludomani. Naturally, there is help available on-line to Danish compulsive gamblers, at the website for the Center for Ludomani. (All in Danish, again; but it’s not like there are not similar resources in English, like this webpage on the MayoClinic website.) For those of you who need it – and have the necessary Danish language skills – there’s even a new book out from the Center, which it touts heavily, on its homepage and also here: Ludomani: No More Ante-ing Up, Thanks!, by Michael Bay Jørsel, who is in fact the Center’s chief. Available from the renowned Danish publishing house Gyldendal.

P.S.: While googling to provide a suitable English-language compulsive gambling help-site above to those who might have been frustrated had I offered only the Danish entry, the first likely-sounding candidate was the site for the National Center for Problem Gambling, with the URL http://www.800lostbet.com. Try it, though: All you get is a splash-screen reading “Website Disabled Due To NON-PAYMENT.” Could someone at the National Center have gotten too tied-up in some side activities – 1961 Wire Communications Act or no 1961 Wire Communications Act?

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