Recently the Ontario government opened the online gambling website PlayOLG.ca where any Ontario resident over 18 years of age can play lotteries online and anyone over 19 years of age can play casino games such as slots and table games. OLG plans to offer poker in the future and possibly sports betting but that is a ways off. I decided to set up an account to test it out and report on the ease of use, legal requirements, enjoyment etc. and see how the process differs from other regions of the world.
As soon as I logged into the PlayOLG.ca site I noticed tabs titled "Getting Started", "Community", "Casino", "Lottery", "Promotions" and "Responsible Gambling". I decided to check out the responsible gambling tab and was actually surprised how detailed it was. There were articles related to myths (i.e. that it's a fun way to make money, that games are not random etc.), kids and gambling, play management tools, finding help for compulsive gambling and the self-exclusion option. It was all very negative in that it highlighted the dangers of gambling yet there was very little about the positive aspects of wagering. In fact it could have been written by John Kyl. The section was almost an overreach as to how gambling can harm people which was laughable considering there's nothing similar at land based casinos.
Once the registration process was completed I was required to provide a username and password as well as clicking boxes to acknowledge that I was eligible to play as a resident of Ontario and that I was responsible for my actions which according to the help button meant I wasn't playing under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I thought both check boxes were a bit unusual. Having played online at offshore companies for quite a while now it seemed odd that the geo-verification wasn't able to weed out those not currently in Ontario. I know people from the U.S. who try to log into sites like Betfair and Bet365 that receive a message stating "sorry we detect you're in the U.S.A. and unable to wager with us." And when I click on Skybet and Ladbrokes I get a message that Canadians aren't welcome to gamble there. Naturally some people get around it with proxy servers but for the most part they are shut out and proxy filtering is improving. And as for acknowledging that I wasn't on alcohol or drugs I'm guessing that is a legal requirement although two lawyers I spoke to said that just checking that box likely would never stand up in a court of law if someone chose to challenge it. At the same time both lawyers also stated that cases against casinos in the past have tended to go nowhere in Ontario because the government understands that gambling just like drinking and drugs are voluntary choices and in the end an adult is responsible for their own choices. Lastly, I needed to acknowledge I was not under any self-exclusion programs.
Once this process was completed I was asked to agree to a long list of terms and conditions which I scanned quickly and agreed to and after finally getting the account created I was asked to set a deposit limit. I still didn't understand the purpose of the deposit limit even after reading the paragraph about it on the site and there was no indication of how large the limit could be. As such I just agreed to the default of $50 which I would later find out was a mistake when it was clear that you had to wait 2 weeks if you wanted to increase it. Apparently the deposit limit is a government stipulation, but it nonetheless severely limits the options to anyone who wants to wager bigger. The system also asked if I wanted session time limits, casino loss limits or lottery loss limits to which I clicked no. I made the $50 deposit with my bank card and decided to try some slots which were mobile versions of games offered by Ballys, IGT and a few other operators. To the sites credit the payback amounts were stipulated for each machine, which was a bonus since this information isn't readily available at land based casinos, and for the IGT games the payback percentages were well over 93%. But what also stood out as a glaring reminder that the site is monitoring your every move was a session timer at the top telling how long I've been playing, popups regarding how to set s limits and a "take a break" icon. The play was slow but manageable but after about 10 minutes a popup came on screen suggesting maybe I should take a break. Note I was down about 50 cents overall and I wasn't playing very long. I clicked no and continued on my way until the next popup suggesting a break. Eventually after numerous slowdowns and the barrage of popups about responsible gambling and taking a break I just logged out. It should be noted that I also tried the table games and had the same experience with them.
Being a new site I just assumed that this ridiculous amount of scrutiny and for lack of a better word "harassing" was limited to the PlayOLG site. However, after talking with other operators it appears this isn't the case. The BC Lottery Commission (which uses Paddy Power for managing its games) said they had somewhat similar requirements and the online casino manager of a major New Jersey casino (she asked I not identify the casino or her name in this article) said that they had similar requirements in that state too. She said that while the New Jersey casino's site doesn't have popups about taking breaks they do have the session clocks, weekly limit requirements and that people are monitored very closely by staff to try and identify compulsive play. A manager for a Las Vegas casino said that they don't have the same requirements for poker (the only online game currently legal in Nevada) so there are none of the same measures there but stated that if and when casino games were allowed they would "definitely implement the same rules." I also contacted government agencies around the world and it appears that despite what people would believe there are very few governments that sanction gambling. France apparently offers online gambling but limits their scrutiny to the time of registration and not during the games and a few places in Europe are in the same boat. I also emailed the Swedish Gambling Authority since Swedes are known for loving gambling and a spokesman there stated the following when asked about online gambling in Scandinavia:
"I would like to inform you that there are no online casinos, regulated by Swedish Authorities. No single operator has a Swedish license to offer casino online to customers in Sweden. Although there are quite a few companies offering online casino gambling to Swedish customers – but they do so without a Swedish license.
What we do have is online poker run by the Swedish operator AB Svenska Spel. To be able to gamble at that site customers must set their personal limits in money and time spent on the site. Close monitoring is necessary to detect fraud, cheating and compulsive gambling. But there are limitations in what is allowed to register due to personal integrity reasons."
He said he wasn't sure about other Scandinavian companies but believed it was the same for Sweden's neighbors.
Sites with licenses from the UK, Malta, Alderney and The Isle of Man such as Betfair, Bet365, William Hill etc. do not have the same blatant monitoring put in place but a spokesperson for Betfair stated that they do indeed have staff that monitor play and will contact the person or cut off their accounts if they are exhibiting compulsive behavior. But unlike with Ontario or New Jersey they can do so without session clocks or "take a break" icons. It seems the only locations that do not monitor play that closely are sites that run out of Kahnawake, Costa Rica and Antigua although a spokesman for Kahnawake told me there is a lot more done behind the scenes by the Gambling Commission there than is readily apparent.
The question that has to be asked however is why there is such a difference in monitoring online vs. at land based casinos. There are no session clocks at land based casinos and in fact even today there are many casinos that don't have clocks predominantly displayed because they don't want people checking the time to see how long they've been playing. Deposit and playing limits are clearly not a concern at land based casinos considering that credit is easily obtained with a player card and ATMs are predominant throughout every casino. And as for monitoring to ensure responsible gambling I have yet to ever see a person being asked to take a break at a land based casino because they are playing too long or losing too much. I have seen people asked to leave because they are suspected of cheating or are acting irresponsibly but never because the casino is making too much money off of them. I tried to contact the OLG to discuss why there is a difference in treatment between their online gambling products and the various slots casinos they run but received no reply. The online casino manager from New Jersey, however, was willing to talk.
"All the requirements about session clocks, limits and such are absolutely a government rule. It's not something we would have initiated voluntarily."
Asked why there is so much more concern about online casinos versus land based casinos she suggested that it simply had to do with the unknown:
"This is all new and it's likely the governments just want to make sure that they are able to address any controversies. With Sheldon Adelson having such a strong voice, politicians who oppose gambling trying to be heard and the other groups that want to stop online gambling they just have to make sure they don't set themselves up for lawsuits by missteps."
She agreed that it may be an overreach with concerns about responsible gambling online, but she believed that over time the restrictions will be lessened once it becomes commonplace, as happened originally with land based casinos and as is happening with offshore companies that have been offering the product for year. She did indicate, however, that online casino gambling in New Jersey has exceeded expectations and they are thrilled with the results thus far. Poker has been slow but casino play has been positive.
As for my own personal experience I would have to say I found it quite disappointing. The lack of games available, the forced limits and the barrage of popups made me almost feel dirty as if I was doing something wrong. At land based casinos I always feel welcome due to the interaction with staff and other players, the offering of drinks by the waitresses and the bells and whistles of the machines but with the close monitoring and suggesting I need a break ad infinitum, gambling at PlayOLG.ca was hardly a pleasurable experience. Even playing offshore I never felt that way because I was able to play without the constant intrusions. That said I wanted to make sure I wasn't alone so I spoke to a friend in Ontario and a friend in New Jersey to get their impressions.
"I set up my PlayOLG account, played for 30 minutes and was so frustrated I gave up. That was almost a month ago and I never went back," the Ontario friend said. "I know the Ontario Government wants you to enjoy yourself but there's nothing enjoyable about having someone on your back all the time."
And the New Jersey resident was even more vocal:
"What can I say other than it was terrible. The games were slow, the payouts were lousy and the session clock and responsible gambling message was a big turnoff. When I go to a casino in Atlantic City I feel welcomed and treated like I'm doing them a favor by visiting the casino and playing with them like it should be. But at the website I felt like they believed they were doing me a favor by allowing me to play online and as such would be observed very closely. No thanks, that's not enjoyable and unless things change dramatically I'm done playing online."
So clearly I'm not alone. I understand the need to ensure that people gamble responsibly but it seems the governments have gone overboard with their online requirements and it's clearly turning people off. It's unlikely the governments are going to do anything different unless attitudes change on Capitol Hill or Parliament Hill in Canada but this overstep is keeping away a lot of potential gamblers and revenue for government coffers.