The Republic of Finland, formerly part of the kingdom of Sweden and later the Russian Empire, has had a government-controlled gambling monopoly in place since before World War II. Despite recent pressure from the European Union and even the dawn of the internet and online gambling, Finland’s gambling structure has barely changed since then- and seemingly has no intention of doing so any time soon.
The first slot machines were introduced to Finland from Germany in the 1920s. Private businesses started exploiting the opportunity they presented, provoking a state intervention granting only charities the licences to operate these machines in 1933. However, bickering between different operations continued, and in 1938 RAY, short for Raha-automaattiyhdisty, Finland’s Slot Machine Association, was set up. Its decree gave it the authority to not only oversee slot gambling, but also to manufacture the machines themselves and provide funding for any health or addiction issues caused as a result of the hobby.
Ray is one of three organisations that form the Finnish government’s monopoly on gaming. The second is Veikkaus Oy, the Finnish National Lottery, whose profits on lotto and other betting activities are spread across different projects contributing to Finnish art and culture, sports or scientific endeavours. The third, Fintoto Oy, is horse racing-specific parimutuel betting, which like Veikkaus Oy invests the money it raises back into Suomen Hippos, a government organisation that looks after horses.
There is a separate system in place for Finland’s Aland Province, a network of roughly 6,500 islands located in the Baltic Sea that falls under Finland’s rule. Here, gambling activities are under the control of PAF (Play among Friends), which was founded in the 1966 to bring all the different Aland organisations under one roof.
However, with the dawn of the internet and online gambling, RAY and PAF found themselves competing with one another. PAF had started providing online casinos and sports betting from 1999, but the Finland 2002 Act on Gaming made RAY the sole official provider of online gambling for the mainland. However, because of better odds and prizes, many mainland Finns shunned RAY and Veikkaus for PAF, causing officials at RAY to push for legal action. However, the government stepped in again to intervene, deciding to allow both organisations to operate concurrently.
The Finnish government deters its citizens from gambling outside the borders of the country, but there is no legal framework in place for them to prevent or act against such activity. Yet despite the profits of gambling going towards good causes, the EU has tried to pressure Finland to dismantle its monopoly, calling its policies 'protectionist.'
A particularly unique and popular Finnish past time and betting target is the sport of Pesäpallo,which many consider to be the national sport of Finland. A variation of baseball, the game was developed in the 1920s, with a few essential differences and much faster speed of play. Although it's also played in other countries, it is most popular among the Finns. Thanks to the country’s less-than-tropical climate, winter sports such as ice hockey and skiing are also popular - Finland picked up five medals at the 2010 Winter Olympics and will be hoping to improve on that at Sochi.
The country's largest casino complex, Casino Helsinki, plays host to a variety of RAY-sponsored poker tournaments throughout the year, such as the Finnish championship tournament. This draws some of the top Finnish poker players to the nation's capital regularly. The country was also the host of the World Sauna Championships, possibly one of the most unusual sports activities in human history. The endurance exercise was held in the town of Heinola, and saw contestants sit in a sauna as the temperature increased. Despite the safety concerns, the event was very popular both with viewers and gamblers. However, the 2010 event ended suddenly when a Russian contestant died, after which the government banned the tournament.
Despite criticisms levelled at the effective monopoly the Finnish government holds over gambling in its country, the re-investment of profits in charities and institutions that help those with gambling addiction and care for the animals involved can hardly be faulted. In the future, the government may seek to use more drastic measures and legal powers to prevent citizens from betting using foreign bookmakers that provide better rates – but to do so would further anger the EU and as such, may well be more trouble than it's worth.
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