Saudi Arabians are simultaneously celebrating and bemoaning their government’s decision to hold the deeply conservative country’s first national card-playing tournament for cash prizes.
Last Thursday, the official Twitter feed of Saudi Arabia’s General Sports Authority (GSA) announced that the country would hold its first card-playing national competition for cash prizes from April 4-8 at the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center in the nation’s capital Riyadh.
The contest, which will be overseen by the Saudi Arabian Federation for Electronic and Intellectual Sports, will be centered around Baloot, a wildly popular local trick card game with similarities to the French game Belote. Baloot is also available on multiple Android and iOS mobile apps, some of which are among the top game apps in Saudi Arabia.
The top four finishers of the contest will share a total prize purse of SR1m (US$270k), half of which will go to the overall winner. Many observers expressed surprise at the amount of the prizes, given the lack of precedent for the contest.
Predictably, news of the tournament has delighted the nation’s Baloot fans while enraging social conservatives, some of whom view even the game of chess as a waste of time that promotes forbidden gambling activity.
Those conservatives should brace themselves for even greater outrage, as one veteran Baloot player told Arab News that he expects women to take part in the contest. Assuming that’s allowed, it would mark another bold step forward for Saudi women, who will finally be allowed to drive cars starting this June.
The end to the female driving ban is part of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman’s Vision 2030 program, which aims to reshape the national economy to create a more modern and secular country. Just this weekend, the government announced that women would be allowed to start their own businesses without the permission of a male guardian.
It remains to be seen whether the prince is pushing too hard on the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Many of the Twitter comments criticizing the Baloot contest half-joked that it wouldn’t be long before Riyadh started to resemble another desert city – Las Vegas – through the addition of casino gambling.