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Internet poker players to Congress: We have rights too

A federal Internet gambling ban poses threats to lawful gaming online and must be amended right away, players argue in a Capitol Hill lobbying blitz.

WASHINGTON--America's online poker enthusiasts descended on Capitol Hill this week with two messages for Congress: Poker's good for the brain, and stop jeopardizing our games already.

The multiday lobbying visit by members of the Poker Players Alliance, which counts more than 800,000 professional and amateur players on its rolls, arrived about a year after politicians enacted a restrictive anti-Internet gambling law.

The players' goal for the fly-in: to boost support for a couple of bills, which so far enjoy backing from only a handful of politicians, that would roll back a sweeping ban in favor of more tailored regulations. One proposal would expressly carve out poker from any ban on online gambling, placing it in a category with "games of skill" like backgammon, mahjong and bridge.

American poker players want Congress to scale back an online gambling ban that's 'inconveniencing' their games. Anne Broache/CNET News.com

"Certainly I think the growth of the game has been hurt," Howard Lederer, a two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner, said of the current law's impact at a public forum organized by the PPA here Wednesday. He's known as the "Poker Professor" for his commentary and analysis in card-playing circles and is one of the founders of the online card room Full Tilt Poker.

That's unfortunate, Lederer argued, because "yes, it can be used as a vice, but for most of us it's a wonderful form of entertainment that actually massages your mind, gets you thinking."

Supporters of the federal online gambling ban say the law is necessary to clarify that forms of offline gambling already considered unlawful by state and federal laws are also prohibited in the online context. They argue gambling has a host of negative consequences--including addiction, bankruptcy, divorce and crime--that are only aggravated by the relative anonymity the Internet supplies.

The law requires banks and payment processors to take certain steps to block transactions stemming from "unlawful" forms of gambling--that is, those that violate any federal, state or local laws. (Bets on horse racing, lotteries, fantasy sports and games that don't involve exchanges of anything of "value" are exempt.)

Because Congress has historically left it up to each state to decide how much or how little gambling to legalize, it's not always clear where online gaming for money--and poker in particular--fits in from state to state. So, with the risk of hefty fines and criminal penalties if they don't do their part, payment processors seem to be playing it safe, opting to stop accepting transactions from online poker and bridge sites even when it's not clear laws are being broken, critics of the ban said Wednesday.

"Poker players who are in states where there is clearly no prohibition on poker (like New Hampshire, Lederer's home state) are being inconvenienced," Lederer said. "And that inconvenience is going to get much worse."

Part of the controversy boils down to whether poker is considered a game dominated by "chance" or one of "skill." The distinction is significant because many states focus their gambling restrictions on games dominated by chance, not skill.

Professional poker players are adamant that their game requires skill and have cited some academics who seem to agree. Legally speaking, however, interpretations still seem to be up in the air. For example, a pending case in a Pennsylvania county court is dealing with the question of whether for-profit poker tournaments (in this case, in the offline world) are considered unlawful there. (Editors' note: We mischaracterized the status of this case in an earlier version of this story--key questions are still pending.)

The U.S. Department of Treasury, which is still in the early stages of drafting the rules that will flesh out the law, made no attempt to define more clearly what is considered "unlawful" gambling in proposed regulations issued earlier this month. But it acknowledged that "overblocking" by banks may occur and is soliciting comments on how to handle that.

Online poker: An educational tool?
Meanwhile, poker players are looking for a savior in two proposed bills that have yet to go anywhere in Congress this year.

One alternative the PPA supports is Rep. Barney Frank's (D-Mass.) Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act, which would substitute strict regulations, including criminal background checks and financial disclosures imposed on companies that seek to offer legal Internet gambling, for a blanket ban.

A narrower proposal it backs, sponsored by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), addresses only companies that offer "games of skill" over the Internet--a category that includes "bridge, mahjong, backgammon and poker" in the bill's text. Those firms would have to ensure that minors are prevented from playing for money, that compulsive players are flagged and referred for help, that game operators aren't "vulnerable" to criminal or terrorist money laundering, and that appropriate taxes are collected.

A regulated online poker regime would be far preferable because it's easier to detect cheating and addictive behaviors that way, professional poker player Vanessa Russo said at Wednesday's event. "The fact that all the (sites) are logged means you can program software to detect problem gamblers much more efficiently than you ever could in a live way," she said.

Frank and Wexler aides both said their bosses are hoping to move their bills to votes but are attempting to get more of their colleagues to sign on as supporters first.

"I don't know if something is going to happen this year, but I think within this two-year cycle, I think change could occur," Wexler spokesman Josh Rogin told CNET News.com.

Poker enthusiasts are also attempting to ingratiate themselves with politicians wary of the game by playing up its perceived positive effects on everything from family life to cognitive development.

Charles Nesson
Professor Charles Nesson Declan McCullagh/mccullagh.org

"I think poker has tremendous educational utility for kids, I think it's a great family game," said Harvard Law School Professor Charles Nesson, who is currently leading a project aimed at legitimizing and teaching poker and the value of strategic poker thinking.

Nesson recently started up a group called the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society, which now has satellite groups at a handful of other prestigious universities, with the goal of creating "an open online curriculum centered on poker that will draw the brightest minds together, both from within and outside of the conventional university setting, to promote open education and Internet democracy."

The Internet gambling ban has also prompted a sort of "political awakening" among poker players, said PPA president John Pappas. The group plans to launch a voter registration drive next year with the hopes of signing up "single issue voters" who would be willing to vote against reelecting members of Congress who reject attempts to turn back the antigambling law. The group is also encouraging members to post video testimonials about the "influence of online poker on our lives" on YouTube.

Separately, a group called the Interactive Media Entertainment & Gaming Association, is in New Jersey federal court, arguing the rules could lead to job losses, stifle online innovation and commerce, fail to adequately protect minors, and trample on individual privacy rights. The judge in that case is expected to rule later this month on whether to let the case proceed or to grant the Justice Department's motion to dismiss it.

Perhaps more likely to get politicians moving on the issue sooner than later, however, is the threat of trade sanctions by foreign nations. The United States is reportedly facing the possibility of an up to $100 billion fine from the European Union after the World Trade Organization sided for a second time with the tiny Caribbean nation of Antigua and Barbados, ruling that the U.S. antigambling law violates its international treaty obligations.