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The Rise of Online Poker in New Zealand

3,077 Views on 22/8/20

Every country has its own favorite card games, but poker is the one that transcends national boundaries and has global appeal

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Every country has its own favorite card games, but poker is the one that transcends national boundaries and has global appeal. The game is as popular in New Zealand as it is everywhere else, having probably arrived on Antipodean shores with US miners who ventured there in search of gold in the early 1800s. 

Once the game was established, poker in New Zealand took a familiar path. In the mid-20th century it was seen as something a little dangerous, even shady, a myth perpetuated by the game’s typical portrayal in Hollywood. However, that changed with the arrival of the WSOP in the 1970s, when it became clear that poker players did not have to inhabit seedy, smoke-filled bars, or to accompany the game with copious cigars and shots of whisky. 

Mass appeal for the new millennium

Christchurch Casino opened in 1994, and was New Zealand’s first ever casino. It gave everyday New Zealanders the chance to play poker in a setting that went beyond the kitchen table, and its poker room became an instant hit. However, it was the arrival of the internet that really brought the game mainstream appeal.

Online poker rooms allowed New Zealanders to play for fun or, in some cases, to hone their skills and take on the best in the world. Since those early days, more and more gaming portals have opened up, and there are professional resources like Casinoblox.co.nz that help sort through them all and identify which ones are offering the best deals. But back at the turn of the millennium, the arrival of online poker rooms was something entirely new. 

Most popular variations

It should come as no surprise that Texas Holdem is the most popular form of poker in New Zealand. When the WSOP hit the screens, it was seen as the only form of the game worth playing. In more recent years, however, New Zealanders are willing to entertain other forms of poker. 

Video poker is immensely popular, and for beginners, it is the most common conduit into other forms of the game. Video poker is an ideal introduction to poker basics, in that it helps players understand the different hands and their relative values. There is also the factor that it is a game played alone, an important consideration for the self-conscious novice worried about looking foolish. 

Other variants that have gained in popularity over recent years include three card poker, Caribbean stud, five-card draw and Pot Limit Omaha. The beauty of a casino or poker room online is that physical space is no longer a constraint. It means the operators can experiment by offering different forms of poker, and indeed other games, for those who are looking to try something new. 

Laws and regulation

There is always rumor and misinformation when it comes to gambling rules in any country, and New Zealand is no different. The facts are that New Zealanders are at liberty to play poker, or any other casino game they might choose, at online sites. 

The confusion arises because operating an online casino site within New Zealand is currently prohibited. All this means, however, is that players are forced to choose operators and platforms that are based offshore. The implications for the New Zealand economy are obvious, so it comes as little surprise that the government has published proposed reforms to legalize domestic online casinos and poker rooms. 

As a general rule, poker winnings are not taxable in New Zealand. The only possible exception to this is in the case of pro players where poker is their primary source of income. Under such circumstances, it is obviously wisest to take professional advice from a tax consultant. 

The pro poker scene

It was the bright lights and big money stakes of the WSOP that really put poker on the map in New Zealand. And while the majority of players are content to play for dollar stakes in an online poker room, some have gone on to play on the world’s largest stage. 

Lee Nelson MD is arguably New Zealand’s most famous doctor – due to his success at the poker table. Although born in the US, he has lived in New Zealand all his professional life. He accumulated winnings of more than US$2.5 million in a poker career that spanned three decades, while remaining a practicing doctor. Nelson became famous for the Hawaiian shirts that he always wore in tournaments. Now 77, he has retired from both poker and medicine, but is still a familiar voice on New Zealand’s TV3, where he provides expert insights and commentary as a co-host of Joker Poker. 

Aucklander David Yan, on the other hand, is a pro who is very much part of the online age. He might be 50 years younger than Lee Nelson, but he is just as much of a handful at the poker table, and had earned more than $2 million in combined online and live table winnings by the time of his 21st birthday.

It is the advent of big money online tournaments that has really opened up the pro game, and David Yan is not the only player to have cashed in handsomely. Kiwi Daniel Francis might not be a household name like Lee Nelson, but he quietly makes a living from online poker. In one of his earliest tournaments, he came out ahead of 34,000 other entrants and walked away with a cool NZ$674,000 (US$450,000).

Finally, we cannot discuss New Zealand poker pros without mentioning Simon Watt. Other stars might come and go, but the Auckland-based software developer holds a record that will be his forever, being the first ever New Zealander to win a WSOP bracelet. That happened 10 years ago at the 2010 WSOP Vegas. As well as securing him a place in the history books, it was also worth a highly impressive $614,248.


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