Legal Poker in the GTA

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Summary:

It is our belief that Great Canadian Gaming (GCG), through their license agreement with the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation (OLG) for the GTA gaming sites, is failing in the core goals it was tasked with by the OLG and by extension the provincial government, almost before they've begun.  GCG has solidly demonstrated poker is not in their plans for any of the three GTA gaming sites for which they've been licensed, and we believe this position to be strongly at odds with the mandate they received from the provincial government and the OLG.  We urge all levels of government, along with the OLG and GCG, to rectify this situation immediately.

When GCG was granted the rights to the three GTA casinos: Woodbine, Great Blue Heron (GBH), and Pickering, poker was present in two of these venues; Woodbine, and Great Blue Heron.  The day GCG took operational control of Woodbine they removed poker from the offerings and replaced it with slot machines.  At GBH, they increased the cost of playing (rake) after ~3 months, then shortly thereafter announced poker will no longer be offered at GBH as of June 26th.  This is very distressing to the large community of GTA area poker players.  From the time when GCG took control of Woodbine on January 23rd, to the present, we have been very positive, patient, and proactive with GCG.  The General Manager of Casino Woodbine recently stated "Current development plans do not include poker at Woodbine and GBH".  If poker is not part of the mix at GBH, where the cost of land is far, far cheaper than all of their other GTA casinos, what hope do we have they'll consider putting poker anywhere?  It has now become obvious that GCG hates poker, sees no place for it in any of the GTA casinos they operate, and it has no legal future in the GTA.  GCG's lack of offering has nothing to do with demand for the game.  As of 2014, poker is the third most popular casino game in the United States.  The numbers for Canada are probably similar.  Source:

https://www.statista.com/statistics/343016/most-popular-games-with-casino-visitors-us/

So the GTA is getting 'modernized' casinos that offer less in demand games than the previous government run casinos did.  We believe this to run contrary to everything that has been said and promised over the past six years regarding the OLG's Modernization Plan.

Given this, we find these developments very distressing, and we believe it to be a failure on the part of GCG to fulfill the broad terms of their license.  We urge all affected parties to ensure GCG fulfills their obligations to the various stakeholders (including the public of Ontario!) and ensures sufficient live poker offerings are added to all GTA venues where demand warrants.  This means Pickering and Woodbine at a minimum, and most likely GBH, where poker had a successful 18 year history.

Background:

The OLG listed various reasons for engaging in the modernization process, which they detailed in their 2012 Strategic Business Review, below:

http://www.olg.ca/assets/documents/media/strategic_business_review2012.pdf

Analysis

Become more customer-focused.

The first key objective of the OLG was to become more customer focused.  We're not sure how driving away patrons of the third most popular casino game makes their operations more customer focused.  

Further, the OLG stated clearly at various points in their overview their key issue is the aging demographic of their customer base, and the damage this is doing to their current and expected future net profits.  Specifically:

Demographic shifts: About 88 percent of OLG land-based gaming revenue is from slot machines, which have limited appeal to players under 45. These players prefer table games like black jack and poker [bold added for effect]. Demand for slot machine gaming is not expected to grow and will plateau in the coming years.

Anyone who's ever been in a casino knows the age of the average slot player is well over 60.  Anyone who's ever been in a poker room also knows their demographic very much mirrors the demographics of Ontario today.  You'll find old and young, all ethnicities and religions, blue collar and white collar.  You'll even find police officers and people with criminal records on the same table.  Everybody plays poker.  Yet GCG chose to remove poker tables and replace them with slot machines.  They are explicitly failing the OLG's objectives on this point, as the OLG SPECIFICALLY called out poker as a needed game to ensure they're able to widen their customer demographic to prepare for future growth.

The OLG report also states:

These recommendations could achieve OLG’s goal of generating greater and more sustainable Net Profit to the Province as well as economic and social benefits locally.

We understand poker is not the most profitable casino game.  However, we do not  believe it's unprofitable.  There are casinos in various jurisdictions throughout North America that survive mainly from poker:  Playground Poker Club outside Montreal, Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, various casinos in California and Florida.  It's also a major part of most casinos in Las Vegas.  So when we see poker being removed from all GCG properties, we simply don't understand.  

Another of the OLG's stated goals was to repatriate entertainment/gaming dollars to Ontario:

OLG will become a more sustainable organization that ensures that Ontario residents and visitors can play more innovative and fun games in a responsible way.

We fail to see how removing poker aids this goal.  Currently, the only poker room anywhere near the GTA is at Casino Niagara in Niagara Falls.  They run a very busy and successful 26 table room, but it's a 1.5 hour drive from the GTA.  Poker's not going anywhere, so where does the poker revenue go from all the people who don't take 3 hours out of their day to drive to Niagara Falls?  It goes to places like Vegas trips (or anywhere in the USA for that matter, casinos are everywhere now), and it goes to potentially unsafe, unregulated, underground games, run by unknown groups, with no checks on anything.  This further illustrates GCG failing various OLG directives.  Additionally, underground games don't check identification.  Age restricted access is another of the OLG's priorities -- 

All these initiatives were to include a commitment to socially responsible gambling—particularly age restricted access,

Beyond all this, underground games can be unsafe.  The truth of this statement is self-evident.  Several years ago a good Samaritan was fatally shot at an underground poker game in Woodbridge.  Last year York Region Police released a video of a poker player at an underground game being mercilessly beaten.  The HD surveillance system did not help him.  I would think increased public safety, though not explicitly stated in the strategic business review, would be a priority of the OLG.  Where does GCG think the players they removed from Woodbine and GBH are going to go?

Another of OLG's priorities:

Respond to the marketplace: advice about products, land-based sites and channels based on market demand and customer preferences.

Quickly on this point, we're not sure how removing a product for which there's a significant demand qualifies as responding to the marketplace.

Another of OLG's priorities:

Commit to economic development including job creation (direct and indirect), business stimulus and investment.

We do not understand how removing a product for which there is a significant demand qualifies GCG as having fulfilled their requirement for economic development and job creation.

Conclusion

We believe the actions of GCG since their takeover of the GTA Gaming Bundle to be directly contrary in many ways to the stated objectives of the OLG and the provincial government.  As such, we urge immediate direction from Mr. Rigby, the President of the OLG, to ensure GCG lives up to their commitments not only to the province, but to the people of Ontario as well.

We love poker.  We simply want a place to legally play in peace and safety.  None of us imagined in our worst nightmares that the OLG expanding and modernizing gaming in Ontario would lead to us losing the thing which we love, for reasons we don't understand.

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