In a large guest room in a villa in Jeddah, Ahmed and five of his friends play Texas Hold’Em — a form of poker — well into the wee hours of the next day. Periodically, these gamblers take breaks to stretch their legs or go to another room to answer family phone calls.
They sit crossed legged on a carpeted floor sipping tea, smoking cigarettes, listening to music, flipping cards and placing bets.
“Its more convenient for us, this is our poker table,” Ahmed says, laughing.
The game turns quieter and more serious after about two hours. Money has shifted from one player to the next. Those that are down are trying to recoup their money. Those that are up are trying to win more. One of the players gets up to turn off the music.
The game may be tense at times, but the love of playing poker seems to be growing among some in Saudi Arabia. If you know the right people in Jeddah, it’s possible to buy into an underground poker night — ranging from a casual group of friends playing a friendly game to larger operations with multiple games, strangers playing each other and even hired security staff.
Games can be played for as little as a SR200 buy-in, the amount of money required for a player to enter a game. Some local players boast of games requiring serious money, upward of SR20,000.
“I’ve known of six different playing groups,” said Ahmed, who is in his 30s and says he has been playing the game for the past four months. He says that he spends a few hours playing the game on the weekdays and spends up to 12 hours on the weekends.
On this particular poker night, Ahmed buys in for SR200 and walks away about 10 hours later with SR1,300. He describes it as a “good night” of playing, but also claims to have seen winnings as high as SR60,000. There’s a story among his group of friends of a player who walked away with SR250,000 and bought a Lexus with the winnings.
“There was this one table I played on where the minimum buy-in was 5,000, but they bent the rule that one time and allowed me in with SR4,000 that night,” said Ahmed.
With the stakes so high, it’s bound to get a little tense. But Ahmed says he’s never seen a fight or anything more than raised voices. Games of chance that involve stakes are forbidden in Islam and therefore illegal in Saudi Arabia, which explains why one’s chances of finding a poker game to participate in are zero without connections to the underground social gatherings.
Ahmed admits that his hobby has become an addiction of sorts.
“We’ve started calling in sick very often so we don’t break the flow of the game,” he said.
When asked whether he sees any moral conflict with his gambling habit, he says that he separates his poker winnings and doesn’t spend it on his family because it is prohibited.
“I use the amount won just to play poker,” he said. “I increase my poker proceeds to get to higher-stake tables.”
Why did this love of poker surface? Some players attributed to the online versions of Texas Hold’Em poker, which involves virtual money rather than the real thing.
Online poker pro Ghassan, 30, has become a star in the online poker world, crossing the so-called Pro 50m mark, which means he has accumulated 50 million virtual dollars in this fantasy poker league.
“The virtual online casinos are a brilliant place to play a game now dear to my heart without losing any real money,” said Ghassan.
“At the same time I get to socialize with people from all over the world. I am not playing with real money therefore it’s not gambling.”
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t money involved. Ghassan said that he bought 30 million virtual dollars worth of chips for 1,200 real riyals from another poker player in Jeddah for one of his friends, a young woman who enjoys playing virtual poker.
After he finished the transaction the seller rewarded him $2 million virtual dollars worth of chips for conducting the transaction, he said.
“Today it’s virtual poker, tomorrow they move on to real poker,” said Islamic scholar Ghassan Al-Qain.
From Al-Qain’s perspective, one that is shared broadly among Saudis, some activities that may not explicitly violate an Islamic principle should be avoided because they act as gateways to forbidden behavior.
Al-Qain expressed his fear and warned of the spreading culture of the game among youth.