Hong Kong is home to only four forms of legal gambling. Mahjong is one and operates under special exemptions from our gambling laws when certain conditions are met. Horse racing is what we are most known for and is practically a religion here. The same company that facilitates horse racing bets also has the government-granted monopoly on lottery, and football betting. Their website is extremely comprehensive and available in English at www.hkjc.com/home/english. As everything you’d want to know and more about gambling in Hong Kong can be found from that site, in this article I will focus only on the laws.
Gambling Laws Explained
There are two legal documents that cover the bulk of our gambling law. These are the Betting Duty Ordinance Cap.108 (first passed in 2003 and was last amended in 2006) and the Gambling Ordinance Cap.148 (first passed in 1977 and last amended in 2006). While a lot of words to read, the law is very easy to understand.
Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) holds a government-granted monopoly on all gambling involving horse races, football matches, and lottery. Bets made through HKJC approved channels are legal. Mahjong is covered separately in the law and poker is a gray area (mostly considered illegal). All other forms of gambling are unlawful and carry the harsh penalties listed below.
First conviction: fine of $10000 AND up to 3-months imprisonment.
Second conviction: fine of $20000 AND up to 6-months imprisonment.
Third conviction: fine of $30000 AND up to 9-months imprisonment.
It is also important to note that due to the Gambling (Amendment) Ordinance of 2002 these laws fully apply to internet and telephone betting with foreign sources. At virtually all HKJC approved betting channels reminders are plastered all over informing players they can go to prison for up to 9-months if they use foreign bookmakers.
For reason Hong Kong is a global economic power, has extradition treaties with much of the world, and has extremely harsh penalties for gambling operators found in violation of HK law, most every foreign betting site blocks Hong Kong players from making deposits. There is however some offshore gambling sites (that while illegal) Hong Kong residents can use, but these are far and few between.
To help you better understand our mahjong law I need to first mention that Hong Kong was British colony from 1842-1997. Today we are one of two special administrative regions of China (Macau is the other). We have our own currency, unique history, passports, government and laws. In short we have not been subject to gambling law of Chinese Mainland for over 170 years. Back on topic here, the Colonial Government had banned all forms of gambling under the Gambling Ordinance of 1891. Cap.40 of 1931 allowed for limited forms of gambling and its 1950 rewrite expanded this to allow for licensed Mahjong Parlours.
From 1950-1976 Colonial Europeans issued licenses to approximately 140 Mahjong clubs. In 1977 this law was repealed. While no new clubs have been licensed since, those that held a license prior to 1977 are still allowed to operate legally. There are about 60 of these clubs left. They take 7.5% commission from player’s winnings and are fully legal under Section 22 of the Gambling Ordinance.
Modern Mahjong clubs are far more popular than the licensed ones and fall under Section 3 of the Gambling Ordinance. This allows social-occasion gambling on games involving dice, dominoes, mahjong or tin kau tiles, and playing cards only in licensed restaurants, premises licensed to sell liquor and clubs (as defined by 4-2 of the Clubs Safety of Premises Ordinance). To be legal: admission must not be charged to enter the premise and there must be no exclusive bank. It also must not be a trade of the business in any way. This means no promotion of the games, no employees playing the games, and no cut taken from the winnings.
Hong Kong Poker Law
Poker is a very popular in Hong Kong, both with Chinese players and expats. Until 2010, poker clubs operated out in the open feeling they held the same legal exemption as Mahjong. A series of police raids put an end to this. The Blue House was raided and shutdown in March 2010, a high-stakes game involving a Merrill Lynch director was raided in July 2010, and the famous PokerStars co-sponsored Hong Kong Poker House in August 2010.
These raids sent poker underground. Today, it still exists but for reason being caught involves a 3-month prison sentence for a first offense it is difficult to get into the game without knowing someone. It’s worth noting gambling in Macau is a one-hour ferry ride away from Hong Kong and here poker and casino games are offered in HKD currency.
Holders of a Hong Kong Identity Card, Hong Kong Permanent Identity Card or Re-entry Permit are allowed to enter Macau without even needing a passport. Macau tourism figures show this is a popular option. In 2012, Macau’s visitor arrivals from Hong Kong were 7,081,153, which is slightly than the total population of Hong Kong. This is because each visit is counted separate, and for some serious gamblers Macau is an every weekend trip.