Saudi Arabia has kicked off its first-ever card game tournament in the capital Riyadh with a popular cleric in attendance as authorities try to boost local sports and entertainment.

Thousands of Saudis flocked to attend the first day of the Hold’em Championship on Wednesday, which is offering a total prize of one million Saudi riyals ($270,000) for the top player, state-run SPA reported.

The four-day event, which was organised by the General Entertainment Authority, has over 12,000 players taking part in the country’s first official card game competition.

Sheikh Adel al-Kalbani, a senior Muslim cleric, attended the opening day of the event – a move likely taken by authorities to dampen criticism from conservatives.

The Imam told us:

“Whether we like it or not, Hold’em is a very popular game in Saudi Arabia.” 

“I told participants to refrain from getting angry or insulting one another. I also explained to them that this game shouldn’t take them away from prayer. If these conditions are respected, there is no wrong in playing Poker.”

That’s how first-place winner Badr Abou Hamid ended up walking away with a check for 500,000 rials (around $110,000). The second and third place winners got checks for 250,000 rials ($55,000) and 150,000 rials ($30,000) respectively.

“I’ve been playing Poker since I was 16, mostly online. I’m now 25. Playing this game requires reflection and strategy, so it is nothing like most gambling games played in casinos.

It is true that there is a check at the end. But that’s the same as any other sport like football, basketball or tennis. When a team wins a tournament, they get both a trophy and money as a prize.

Moreover, it’s free to sign up online. Close to 80,000 people registered already receiving even a free bonus. Then, about 12,000 people won.”

Some conservative clerics prohibit games such as chess and cards even if there is no gambling involved because they consider them to be distractions from religion.

Long known for its ultra-conservative mores, the kingdom has embarked on a wide-ranging program of social reforms that includes boosting sports and entertainment and allowing women to drive from June.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has led the modernization drive, despite opposition from religious hardliners.

In February, Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority announced it will stage more than 5,000 festivals and concerts in 2018, double the number of last year, and pump $64 billion in the sector in the coming decade.

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