About 100 members from the nonprofit Poker Players Alliance -- including poker stars Howard Lederer, Annie Duke, Chad Brown and Vanessa Rousso -- were in Washington this week to raise the stakes and push legislative proposals that would ease federal restrictions on Internet poker.
At issue is the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 that bars the transfer of funds between financial institutions and Internet gambling sites, with the exception of "fantasy" sports, Internet lotteries and horse racing. Poker players want in on the action under an exception for their sport.
Two bills in the House seek to provide that.
One, proposed by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., would essentially revamp last year's measure. The other, called the Skill Game Protection Act, sponsored by Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., would establish poker, bridge, mah-jong, chess and backgammon as games of skill. It would grant those games the same exemption that existing law gives online horse racing, fantasy sports and Internet lotteries.
"I think poker is a sport. It's people having a good time. It's a skill game," said 24-year-old Rousso, who stunned the poker world last year by placing seventh at the World Poker Tour Championship in Las Vegas.
"I studied game theory at Duke University (as an undergrad) and specialized in it. There is a uniquely mathematical optimal move to every single decision that you make in a game of poker. It's much more akin to chess. The only thing it has in common with the other more traditional forms of gambling is the fact that it is housed in a casino," she said.
Rousso ended 2006 as the top earning female in the U.S. circuit and has banked $1.6 million in her two years of professional play. A full-time law student at the University of Miami, Rousso said Internet gambling opportunities are important, especially for women, which is why she was in Washington Wednesday lobbying for change.
"Being a woman, playing on the Internet was a great way for me to become comfortable playing the game before having to sit down with a bunch of older guys in the intimidating atmosphere of a real casino. I play about 10 hours a week online and as a professional player, it allows me to constantly hone my game and improve," she said.
Expanding gambling while curbing problems
At the heart of Frank's bill is regulation that would allow U.S. companies to accept bets and wagers online from reputable agencies, while combating concerns about underage players and gambling addiction. This would entail using advanced technology capable of age verification, geo-location and identification of problem gamblers.
Supporters of the law in 2006 said it would help lower levels of gambling addiction. Many represented constituents opposed to gambling itself.
The Family Research Council, which backed the effort to restrict Internet gambling, cited research that said "accessibility of gambling leads to increased gambling addiction and the resulting social ills associated with gambling activities."
The key argument among the poker players supporting Frank's legislation is that the 2006 law infringes on civil liberties by authorizing government to rule on what Americans should or should not do in the privacy of their homes, said John Pappas, executive director for the poker alliance.
"Poker players are being inconvenienced," said poker pro Lederer at a public policy forum on the future of Internet poker Wednesday. "We have to respect the privacy of Americans at home."
Also driving the lobbying effort is the lack of consumer safety in the 2006 internet gambling law, said Radley Balko, senior editor of Reason magazine and a participant on the poker policy panel. Americans are forced to shift to black and gray markets, where there are issues of accountability in the event of fraudulent activities, he said.
Trade and protectionism
The Internet gambling law led to a World Trade Organization ruling in favor of the Caribbean nation of Antigua, which charged the U.S. with violating its treaty obligations by not granting full market access to online gambling companies based in the island nation. Antigua filed a claim for $3.4 billion in trade sanctions against the U.S.
"Basically, the bottom line is protectionism," said Gary Shaw, founder of St. Minver Ltd., a pan-European, multicurrency gaming operator based in Gibraltar, a British outpost on the southern tip of the Iberian peninsula.
"They can't stop players from playing," he explained. "The (new) legislation will emerge and will grant a few licenses to big incumbent organizations." It will be the big casino groups with political clout that will be the ones getting the licenses, he added.
His company offers integrated gaming solutions for European companies and relies on technology for reliable banking and fraud-protection services, he said. He argued that technology is available that effectively safeguards poker-playing consumers.
Reason senior editor Balko echoed Shaw's comments about the role of government. "We will see the government picking winners and losers when it starts handing out these contracts," said Balko. "I would rather see an open market. It's not ideal, but it's still better than what we have now."