It was gradual but fast. Kees (not his real name because of his privacy) once bet a hundred euros on a football match on the advice of a colleague. A few months later he gambled about eighteen hours a day. Whether he was behind the wheel of his car or had retreated to the toilet during an outing with friends: he kept on working. And more and more. Until he had gambled away more than 150 thousand euros in a year and a half.
Now Kees wants his money back, together with about a hundred (former) gamblers who have reported to lawyer Benzi Loonstein. According to him, these are ‘often vulnerable and young people’, who have gone deeply into debt. Some have lost their jobs, homes, or relationships.
While Loonstein acknowledges that players have a responsibility in this regard, he also argues that online casinos have fueled addiction among his clients by offering them bonuses or other incentives. This also happened at a time when offering games of chance was still illegal. The Dutch government will not issue licenses to online gambling providers until October 1, 2021, and the market will be legalized.
Dozens of gamblers in Germany and Austria have already won their case on the same legal ground – the illegal provision of online games of chance. Just last month, the highest court in Cologne ruled that online casino Pokerstars must pay a player 58 thousand euros back because it had offered games of chance without having a license.
Duty of care
Loonstein also argues that online casinos have violated their duty of care. Even before the legalization of the market, it was ‘an unwritten rule’ that gambling providers had to protect their consumers, just as banks have to do. Now that 24 gambling providers have a Dutch license, they are legally obliged to intervene if they see a player displaying problematic gaming behaviour.
Online casinos may decide for themselves how they do this, but according to Loonstein that does not mean that the duty of care is without obligation. ‘It must be assessed on a case-by-case basis whether it has been properly observed. Now casinos hide behind general legal minimum requirements, such as a responsible gaming page and the ability to set a limit.
Loonstein initially tries to reach settlements with the online casinos, giving them the opportunity to voluntarily compensate the damage out of court. In how many cases has already been settled, he is not allowed to say because of a confidentiality clause.
However, the first four summonses have now been issued, because Loonstein could not come to an agreement with the casinos in question. A public hearing is a big step for his clients, he says, because they are often deeply ashamed. Gamblers also risk a fine and a criminal record if they go to court, the casinos threaten to say; after all, the gamblers have themselves participated in an illegal market. Incidentally, this has never happened in practice, confirms the Gaming Authority, which supervises the gambling industry.
When Kees gambled away his savings – before that he had a good job in the events industry – casinos never contacted him to ask how he was doing. As a top player, he was assigned his own VIP manager, who regularly texted and called him. ‘If I had a plus of 2,000 euros, he would say: hey, you’re doing well, luck is on your side, try this new game. Or: I see it’s your birthday next week, you can have dinner with your girlfriend at our expense.’
Tim (also a pseudonym), another client of Loonstein who gambled away almost two hundred thousand euros in twenty years, was also showered with all kinds of extras. Tickets for poker tournaments, for example, or trips abroad. ‘In 2018 I was still in the sky box at a Champions League match of Ajax, paid for by Kroon Casino. I felt like the man, but actually I was among all the other losers who had lost a lot of money.’
Tim, who has a diagnosed impulse disorder, is aware that he himself has transferred money to online casinos, he says. “But it also feels like I’ve been taken advantage of.”
In a response, the Swedish-based company Kindred, one of the largest providers of online gambling, argues that legal proceedings for gamblers in the Netherlands are pointless. The parent company of, among others, the Dutch gambling site Unibet speaks of an ‘earnings model for certain law firms’ and refers to a case in 2016 in which a gambler was found wrong.
The man demanded back 185 thousand euros in losses suffered from Unibet due to illegally offering games of chance. The court in Amsterdam ruled that the gambling site could not be held liable for this. Because the government at that time did not yet issue licenses to online casinos and did not ‘persistently enforce’ them, it was ‘on the whole not socially undesirable, illegal or punishable’, according to the court. In other words: online games of chance were tolerated.
According to Benzi Loonstein, this jurisprudence has now become obsolete: the Council of State ruled this year that offering online games of chance before 1 October 2021 was indeed prohibited and that there was therefore no tolerance policy.
Social point of view
Marjan Olfers, professor of sport and law at VU University Amsterdam, also questions the 2016 ruling. ‘The judge then took a very liberal position, while you can also view it from a more social point of view: decency not to let people gamble excessively and get into trouble. I do not rule out the possibility that a higher court will make a different assessment.’
Kees stopped gambling after a year and a half. He is currently following an aftercare program at addiction clinic Jellinek. Gambling remains a trigger for him, he says. ‘Now with the World Cup I am being bombarded with advertisements and offers, which means that I still occasionally look at certain gambling sites. Yesterday I received another e-mail: deposit 100 euros now, and you will receive 300 in return on your account.’