6D explores betting and gambling in Finland.

Betting and gambling are activities enjoyed by most Finns. Unofficially, bets are placed on almost anything, like anywhere in the world: from whether there will be any passengers boarding the ferry boat at the next landing, through which of the two candidates gets more votes in the next election, to whether the next batsman will drive in runs – the keyword “next” shows that the outcome of a future event is always at stake. The same goes for unofficial gambling; per estimate, a vast majority of Finnish males have sometimes thrown “all in” at sökö (the traditionally popular variant of the five-card stud). For the most part, these have gone down as harmless vices.

“At one time, I almost lost myself to betting on horses. But having a family saved me; I would never have placed the food money at stake and let the kids go hungry.”

In the official sense, these activities are controlled and arranged by three different state agencies. Veikkaus Oy has a legal betting licence on lotteries and sports betting in Finland. Of the 20 games it organises, the best-known is probably Lotto, the weekly lottery game. Fintoto Oy today runs all horse race-related betting activities. And RAY, Finland’s Slot Machine Association, controls the money gaming and Grand Casino Helsinki, Finland’s only official casino where gambling takes place, and also deals in online gambling.

“Today, I play the poker slot machine almost whenever I see one; the very logo does the deal for me. I’ve learned to stop while I’m ahead. And I play better with someone watching; things get less obsessive then.”

But international private companies in the business today attract players online; if you think about the future, it is difficult to envision a Finnish money game circuit without international operators in it, as in most other businesses eventually. We wanted to provide insights on these as well.

Record local jackpot won

The world’s second largest online jackpot was paid out recently, to a Finn no less! Having accumulated for a number of years, the Paf.com windfall of €8.6 million (the largest ever in Finland) was scooped on a €5 bet. The man in his 40s was playing Arabian Nights at the time of his life-changing win. No doubt he won’t be short of old friends coming out of the woodwork and squeezing him for a loan over the next little while.

Losing money supports winning causes

“It’s basically a pastime, but you’re looking to win as well – I’ve no sympathy for the slot machine.”

Different studies say that the main motivation for money gamers is to win money. This comes as no surprise, and we can assume players want to win big, if it’s up to them. But when you lose money in a Finnish game, you can draw comfort in where your money goes.

“In 2012, the entire Finnish money gaming system run by the three agencies will yield well over 1.1 billion euros for public good, such as science and sports and to support social and welfare organisations that provide rehabilitation for mental health patients or former drug addicts, among other things,” says Hannu Rinkinen, Manager of corporate social responsibility for RAY.

“Everything is basically funded by the players, with the money they lose in our games. The raw deal is that if they don’t lose anything, we will not be able to hand out anything. Less the operating expenses, 68 per cent of the total money lost by players ends up for the benefit of society. If we wanted to change from the current system to a gaming licence system and produce an equivalent result, the tax on total money placements should be around 68 per cent – in Denmark where they did this, they set the tax at 20 per cent, and the licensees were unhappy even with that.”

A balancing act between expectations and human weaknesses

In addition to players’ hopes to win money, the operations of RAY are a target of many other expectations as well. “The state requires us to operate in a way that reduces crime and the negative social and health-related effects, and our partner organisations expect a steady flow of income from us over the years,” Rinkinen says.

Money can mean greed, and greed can mean embezzlement. How does RAY secure its operations to protect its reputation? “We have very accurate instructions for our staff on how to handle money. Our internal audit monitors all of our operations, and all of the modern slot machines feature computer software to the same effect. The truth is that this is needed to protect both our interests and also those of our staff; if you think you can steal and get away with it, you may well ruin your life with a single folly, and this is something we want to eliminate, plain and simple,” Rinkinen states.

Key facts about gambling and betting in Finland

  • Most Finns love to place bets and gamble to varying extents.
  • “Lotto”, the weekly lottery game, is the biggest game in Finland.
  • Official money gaming, betting and gambling is organised under three state agencies:

Veikkaus is in charge of the lottery games and sports betting.

Fintoto runs all horse-betting games.

RAY operates money gaming (table games and slot machines) and Finland’s only official casino in Helsinki.

  • Of the money lost by players, more than one billion euros is directed to charitable purposes annually.
  • The state monopoly may face competition in the future by international private companies.
  • Already now, Finnish internet poker players are active in the cloud.
  • If money gaming becomes an issue, there are services you can turn to; Peluuri provides first-line guidance on what to do.

The club within the pub

In Jyväskylä, a pretty red brick building on the pedestrian zone on Kauppakatu – smack dab downtown – is home to a RAY facility, interestingly within the premises of another company, for a more complete experience.

“Our concept is a pilot for bringing a gaming hall into a bar/restaurant environment,” says Juha Iljin, Service Manager. When RAY’s previous lease expired in Jyväskylä, the extensive search for new confines eventually ended next door, in the premises of the Old Brick’s Inn, who had already run the gaming hall bar services before.

Why leave the comfort of home to go gaming at the Club? “When you have a game table with a player on every seat, exciting things start to happen, and being part of it is exciting as well. We can offer a genuine feel with real people, and with the house full on a Friday or Saturday night and the bar available, that is a good feel,” Iljin describes – nothing will cramp a customer’s style when the going is good, not even a dislodged wooden leg.

Pia Paananen and Niina Korhonen are two of the game room attendants, looking after the three game tables, a good dozen slot machines and “Lighting Poker”, the electronic poker table. “The behaviour of Finnish customers is usually pretty neutral, compared to people from many other cultures that are more ready to show emotion,” Korhonen says. “But you do see the emotional roller coaster ride at times, with the winning and the losing,” Paananen points out – accompanied by the tingle of coins raining onto the tray of a slot machine a few feet away; now that’s what we call music!

Their message to 6D readers is that, “you can come here to play even if you don’t know anything about the games,” as Korhonen puts it. “And we can get you started in English as well,” she adds. However, you need to mind your tongue at the Club: The sign on the card table says “Only Finnish, Swedish or English may be spoken when cards are in play” – this application of the international rule is intended to keep things fair and square for everyone at the table. RAY’s slot machines have the English option on their interfaces as well.

International action available online

“First I studied the game theory, and then I learned that there is money to be made in online poker. By applying the right strategy and managing your funds, you basically have a risk-free way to earning decently – against your average poker players, particularly hot-headed or drunken ones.”

The younger generations in Finland are more inclined to look outside our borders; they are comfortable participants in online money gaming communities.

“Earnings from games within the European Economic Area are considered tax-free income; being in Finland, I wouldn’t consider playing elsewhere.”

“I wish that money-gaming Finns would have the presence of mind to look beyond the monopolies; there are no justifiable grounds for maintaining them anymore,” says Pekka Värre, Editor-in-Chief of Urheiluviikko, an online publication providing betting tips from public sports figures along with relevant background information; the offering is aimed at people who place bets on sports.

“I feel sorry for senior citizens squandering their money on slot machines at the mall.”

“Based on the Finnish Lotteries Act, it is illegal for a Finnish company to market the services of foreign betting companies for Finns. Take an ice hockey club in the Finnish league, for example. When it comes to betting, they can only deal with Veikkaus Oy, instead of choosing another partner offering a better deal and a specialised focus,” Värre laments.

A helping hand available when too much is too much

Are you concerned about your gaming, or for your loved one? Some stats say that in Finland there are 110,000 people who have a money game addiction or are problem gamblers. “It is not just the most severe cases that require attention and help,” says Mari Pajula, spokesperson for Peluuri, a service providing first-line support for people with gaming issues, set up in 2004 with funding from the betting and gaming agencies.

Their telephone help line, web site and chat forums are available for questions; Peluuri provides information, support and guidance; municipalities are in charge of the actual treatment. “Many patients have been turned down by local social services who have failed to understand the nature of the illness – more training on how to treat gambling addiction is still needed in the social services, but we are off to a good start,” Pajula explains.

Finally, were you looking for a sure tip? Here’s one: Only play with what you can afford to lose.

Quotes in italics represent anonymous interviewees.

Mika Oksanen
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