N.B. high rollers free to play $500 hands of blackjack, $100 slots at virtual casino
Strict government regulations limiting maximum bets don't apply to online games, lottery corporation says
An online casino the Atlantic Lottery Corporation is running only in New Brunswick is allowing players to wager up to $100 on single spins of its virtual slot machines — 40 times more than the legal limit allowed for its physical video lottery terminals.
The gaming corporation says it is doing nothing wrong.
"The regulations for Atlantic Lottery's online casino-style games are separate from video lottery regulations," corporation spokesperson Molly Cormier said in an email response to questions about the virtual betting limits.
"The product mix and gaming rules for (the) online casino offering would be similar to land-based casino sites in New Brunswick. The products and standards are also consistent with other regulated online platforms operated by lotteries across Canada."
On Thursday, a spokesperson with New Brunswick's Department of Finance said the province is looking into the issue and hoped to have a response on Friday.
Under the "Casino" umbrella on its website, the Atlantic Lottery Corporation has been operating nearly three dozen slot machine games that it says are "available in N.B. only."
Strict rules for physical video lottery terminals
The corporation had been seeking permission from all four Atlantic Canadian governments as early as 2016 for permission to run online casino games, but was refused until the former Liberal government of Brian Gallant authorized the plan for New Brunswick in an August 2018 order-in-council.
After two years of development, the online casino went live in August of 2020.
Although New Brunswick has strict rules about the operation of physical video lottery terminals, including a maximum $2.50 betting limit per spin, the lottery corporation contends those limits do not extend to its online games and it is not obligated to follow them.
Most of the online slots offered on its website allow maximum wagers of $40 or more, with one called White Orchid allowing wagers of up to $80 at a time and another, called Spartacus, Gladiator of Rome, allowing up to $100 per play.
University of British Columbia professor Luke Clark, who heads the university's Centre of Gambling Research, said studies on the effect of high betting limits on gambling problems are not conclusive. But he noted some jurisdictions have acted to rein them in anyway.
In 2019, the United Kingdom cut maximum betting limits on the British version of physical video lottery terminals, called Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, from £100 to £2 based on the belief that high betting limits worsen gambling problems.
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"The research on this is complicated," Clark said.
"Intuitively, if a gambler can wager $70 per spin on a game that also offers a fast speed of play, there is a capacity to lose a lot of money in a short period of time. In turn, financial losses are the gateway to gambling problems."
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That is the concern with high betting limits, Clark said.
But the link to problem gambling is not certain, he said, and "there is some evidence that only a very small fraction of gambling on these machines is at or near the maximum wager size."
The Atlantic Lottery Corporation itself promotes the benefits of small betting limits on a part of its website removed from its virtual casino. It lists the small wagers allowed on physical video lottery terminals it operates in all four Atlantic provinces as one of the steps it uses to "help manage responsible play."
But it has taken an entirely different approach in the online environment.
In addition to slots, the corporation's online casino features table games with even higher betting limits, including virtual baccarat, where players can wager up to $250 at a time, and virtual blackjack, where $500 per hand is allowed.
A number of games in the corporation's online casino also exceed the legal maximum payback percentages to players, which New Brunswick regulations set at 96 per cent for video lottery terminals.
Percentage payouts higher than that are considered by some to make gambling more addictive, although Clark cautions that research on that, too, is limited.
In order to play in the casino, players have to reside in New Brunswick and are required to set up an online account. The Atlantic Lottery Corporation allows those to be funded in a variety of ways, including instantly with a credit card.
Documents obtained by CBC News in Newfoundland and Labrador showed the Atlantic Lottery Corporation has been trying since 2016 to convince its four provincial government owners that a virtual casino would earn significant profits on money that locals are already spending at online sites offshore anyway.
It projected an Atlantic Canadian online casino, which at the time it was calling "iCasino," would deliver $122 million in net revenue over seven years and could feasibly be launched if just one of the larger Atlantic provinces signed on.
"Since iCasino is so profitable, Atlantic Lottery does not need all four provinces to proceed," the documents state.
"Only P.E.I. is too small to proceed alone to realize profit."