MONTREAL – If Quebec really wants to cripple the underground gambling economy, it should crack down on illegal poker games run out of bars and other venues, the union representing Loto-Québec croupiers says.
"These are not friendly guys-sitting-around-the-kitchen-table games," said Jean-Pierre Proulx of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents about 1,200 croupiers at three of Loto-Québec's four casinos.
Some games are run by organized crime, virtually all of them allow alcohol at the card tables and many turn a blind eye to underage gamblers, said Proulx who speculates that up to 85 per of Quebec's poker players gamble at illegal games or tournaments.
Poker is wildly popular and Quebec's legal casinos only have about 35 poker tables - with maybe 20 open for play on any given night - so the demand for poker is filled by the illegal operators who host games in bars and hotels, Proulx said
And Quebec is deprived of "considerable" revenue, he said.
Comment about the prevalence of illegal poker was not available from the provincial police nor the RCMP.
But a leading gambling researcher said he was not surprised by the union's high estimate. Jeffrey Derevensky, co-founder of McGill University's International Centre for Youth Gambling Problems, said that illegal poker games are easy to find in Montreal, "across the bridge" and in private homes. Some of the young people he works with have told him about their experiences in Montreal's underground poker rooms.
On Wednesday, Finance Minister Raymond Bachand said the government wants to "cannibalize illegal gambling" Internet sites that now draw about $80 million a year from the pockets of Quebecers.
Quebec expects to generate about $50 million from its online poker and sports betting operations in 2012.
Loto-Québec, which expects to launch the site this fall, has not disclosed its betting limits.
Some industry insiders wonder whether the three corporations, which can only draw on the adult populations of their home provinces, will have enough "liquidity" - poker players - to compete with existing online operations that have millions of players around the world.
Proulx and other CUPE officials contend that Quebec's online gambling site will contribute to problem gambling. Trained casino staff can identify and offer help to problem gamblers while an Internet site would leave problem gamblers high and dry.
But Derevensky was far less categorical.
With Internet gambling, "it is very easy to track behaviour" and follow a person's gambling, he said.
"Loto-Québec has assured me that they will be popping up warning signs to people when it looks like they will be gambling excessively," said Derevensky, adding that he has also been told that the lottery corporations will incorporate every viable harm-minimization technique.
But research will have to be done to ensure underage players don't access the online sites and measures are taken to reduce problem gambling, he said.
Marois Slams Online Gambling Plan
Parti Québécois leader Pauline Marois has ripped into the Charest government for allowing Loto-Québec to dive into the Internet gambling business.
Marois said she is "very disappointed Loto-Québec chose this path," because it sends a message that gambling and losing money is an acceptable practice even if it can lead to compulsive habits that can ruin people's lives.
"We have seen personal dramas because people got sucked down this avenue and were never able to get out," Marois said at a news conference in St. Hubert.
She said she was stunned to learn that Montreal's public health authorities were not consulted about this decision, as they are among the parties that end up picking up the pieces after such a step.
Marois said when the PQ was in power it tried to reduce the number of video lottery machines instead of increasing opportunities to gamble.