The home of pizza and birthplace of the Renaissance, Italy also has a strong history of gambling that dates back to the Roman Empire. In more recent times however, the freethinking nation that gave us Leonardo da Vinci has often been at loggerheads with the European Union over the shape of its online gambling industry.
Despite undying tales of corruption at the highest level of the country’s government, Italians have been subject to strict rules when it comes to any form of gambling.
Gambling, defined as a game of luck rather than skill, was completely illegal under Italian law until relatively recently, with sports betting considered to be skill-based and, therefore, legal. However, the government only allowed a handful of state-backed operators to provide such betting services - this restrictive stance was forced to change in 2006 by a European Commission investigation into the regulation of the Italian gambling industry.
This marked a decisive turning point for the country, which drafted legislation to legalise certain other games of skill and to open up its stringent betting market to bookmakers licensed beyond its borders (although this was restricted to countries that were either within the EU or part of the European Free Trade Association). In the following years, yet more forms of gambling were legalised, with poker initially only permitted in tournament form in 2007. The laws quickly evolved to allow cash games and video poker, while other fixed-odds casino games of chance were legalised in 2010.
Italy’s online gambling laws were also targeted by the EU investigation, as Italian citizens had previously been barred by the state from accessing foreign online operators. The government eventually backed down and decided to amend its online gambling laws in 2009. By 2010, these changes resulted in foreign gambling sites being allowed to offer their services in Italy, provided that they could successfully obtain an Italian gambling licence from the AAMS (Amministrazione Autonoma dei Monopoli di Stado – Autonomous Administration of the State Monopolies).
There are a number of requirements that need to be met by companies applying for such a licence. For example, the operator must have a minimum turnover of €1.5m in Europe over the past two years, it must be based in an EU country, and its software must be stable and secure. In addition, the company is required to pay a mandatory €350,000 fee to support the AAMS in regulating the market.
Following the relaxation of Italy’s online gambling laws, some of the biggest European operators, such as Betfair and William Hill, now offer their services to Italian gamblers.
There are a number of sports betting options open to Italians, including horse racing, tennis and F1. However, football betting is by far the most popular of these, with the country’s top domestic league, Serie A, drawing much of the attention.
Gambling on horse racing has long been available to Italians, with UNIRE (the National Horse Breeders Enhancement Society) offering betting markets at racecourses and online for many years before the recent changes to the law. Unfortunately, interest in betting on races has declined sharply over the last few years, leaving the Italian horse racing industry apparently on its last legs.
Instead, online casinos are the venue of choice for gamblers these days, with slot machines particularly popular. However, Italian gamblers looking for a real-life casino experience are also well catered for by the country’s four land casinos, which include the luxurious Casino Municipale in Venice.
Online poker has also taken off in the country since the Italian Supreme Court judged that it was a game of skill rather than chance. Since 2009, PokerStars has been running its Italian Poker Tour, which has traditionally held tournaments in San Remo, Venice and Nova Gorica. Italian poker players of all levels are given the chance to qualify for IPT events through frequent satellite tournaments taking place online.
Since the more relaxed legislation came into effect, Italy has become the biggest gambling market in Europe. However, a major gap has developed between the different forms of gambling in the country. Horse racing has felt a sharp decline in profits recently, with turnover down just over 17% in 2011. The online poker sector has also been hit hard, with revenue down by around a third in 2013 - this could force the Italian government to consider increasing the maximum tournament buy-in (currently €250) and the maximum betting limits allowed at a virtual table (currently €1000). In contrast, however, the AAMS announced in 2013 that casino game profits were up 80% compared to the year before, and this is thanks largely to the ever-growing popularity of online slots machines.
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