OPAP shops hit by grenades, IEDs; Cyprus Poker Association faces down police


cyprus-poker-association-opap-grenadeOPAP may be a hot target of companies bidding for the Greek government’s one-third stake in the monopoly betting operator, but on the island of Cyprus, OPAP is simply a target. In July, Cyprus rewrote its laws to ban online gaming other than sports betting and the passive lottery style games offered by OPAP. Then came a crackdown on non-OPAP betting shops that continued to offer online casino games to their customers. Suffice it to say, this has not gone over well with these shops’ operators. Before the law was even passed, persons unknown began torching OPAP shops and cars belonging to the company’s Cyprus chief, apparently irked that OPAP might have convinced the state to eliminate its competition.

Though the law is now four months old, the attacks on OPAP shops haven’t abated. Last month, two OPAP shops in Cyprus’ second largest city Limassol were hit by what police referred to as “powerful” improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which caused extensive damage. A week after that, two shops in the Nicosia area were targeted by grenades. One exploded and one turned out to be a dud, but police nonetheless called out the Hurt Locker boys to defuse the sucker.

Not wishing to appear intimidated, Cyprus’ ruling AKEL party has introduced new legislation to boost penalties for owners and operators of illegal gambling establishments. Under the proposed amendment, the existing maximum fine of €1,700 and imprisonment of up to one year would be raised to €3,500 and three years in jail. While AKEL MP Aristos Damianou identified the targets of the new law as ‘social clubs’ and sporting associations that host card games, the definition of an illegal gambling establishment includes card games in private homes, assuming money changes hands in the process.

The Cyprus Poker Association (CPA) would argue that the state is already taking far too broad a definition of ‘illegal gambling’. The CPA had 31 of its members arrested this July in Lamarca and Limassol while preparing for the upcoming International Federation of Poker (IFP) Nations Cup. Despite having alerted the police weeks in advance that they would be conducting the team tryouts – and after receiving police assurance that this was okay – police raided the venues, claiming that the €20 fee the CPA charged players to cover venue rental and dealer pay meant the games qualified as illegal.

Last month, the CPA tried again to receive assurances from police in Nicosia that the CPA’s final team selection games scheduled for Oct. 28 would not result in arrests. The CPA stressed that they were a government-certified body tasked with proudly representing their nation in an international competition and the police said ‘knock yourselves out.’ But when the understandably skittish CPA called back a few days later to confirm, CPA VP Antonis Theophanides was told “that ‘under no circumstances’ could we play the final. If we did, we would suffer the same fate” as the members arrested in July. A third call resulted in the police refusing to confirm one way or the other how they would react, saying only that the CPA “should do what you want.” Worn out by this runaround, the CPA ultimately opted to hold its final team selection games via a free-play online poker site.

On a positive note, the media spotlight on the CPA’s plight helped Theophanides get a meeting last week with Limassol police and the attorney general, the tone of which Theophanides later described as “very positive.” Theophanides told the Cyprus Mail the CPA had proven “beyond any doubt” that its games weren’t breaking the law and a Limassol police spokesman concurred, stating his belief that “the case will be withdrawn.” The CPA plans to reveal its official Nations Cup squad by Nov. 28, with the IFP event getting underway Dec. 7 in Vienna.