Full disclosure right off the bat: I am an online poker player. I’m certainly no pro making millions at it, but I’ve done okay over the years, enough to keep me in the game. I consider myself a recreational player, generally playing at stakes between $5 and $200. But for the foreseeable future, my days of playing poker online pretty much ended on Friday April 15, when the FBI indicted 11 people associated with three of the largest online poker websites still servicing U.S. players: PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker/UB, seizing all .com domain names and charging the defendants with operating an illegal gambling business, conspiracy to violate the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and money laundering.
Of course I know that there are many people out there who feel that online poker should be illegal but I’ve never really understood why citizens of a country that was founded on the principles of freedom are complacent to surrender liberties so easily, seemingly without question. In the case of online poker and online gambling in general, it occurs to me that there is a lot of misinformation out there. Here are some examples of common misconceptions.
MYTH: Online poker was made illegal by the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.
The UIGEA, which was tacked on at the last minute to the SAFE Port Act of 2006 by Senator Bill Frist (R-TN), does not specify at all whether online poker is illegal or not. All it does is make it illegal for banks and credit card companies to handle financial transactions between foreign gambling sites and U.S. customers. And by the way, another Senator who has been credited with helping to get the UIGEA through the Senate is John Kyl (R-AZ) — the same John Kyl who recently stated on the Senate floor that abortions account for “well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does,” and after that figure turned out to be more like 3%, his office released a statement saying “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement.” Good to know that when one makes a statistical statement on the floor of the U.S. Senate that it doesn’t have to actually be based on truth. But getting back to the legality of online poker, it is currently an unsettled matter of law. There was the Federal Wire Act of 1961, set up mainly to prevent sports betting by telephone, which prohibits “betting or wagering” using a “wire communication facility.” Some lawmakers believe that the Wire Act applies to all forms of online gambling, but in 2002 the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Wire Act only applies to sports betting. To date, the U.S. Supreme Court has not ruled on the issue. According to an article by Professor I. Nelson Rose, the charges of illegal gambling in the indictments rely on “New York Penal Law 225 and 225.05 and the laws of other states.” In the meantime, Rep. John Campbell (R-CA) has proposed H.R. 1174, a bill that would license and regulate online gambling that according to co-sponsor Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) could potentially generate several billion dollars in tax revenue.
MYTH: Online poker sites are shady organizations run by organized crime.
Okay so admittedly, since I am not involved in the day-to-day activities of these businesses, I can’t really state for sure that organized crime is not involved. But the fact remains that online poker is fully legal in many countries throughout the world, including most of Europe. The major websites like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker are legitimate businesses overseas and some like Party Poker (which elected to stop servicing U.S. players when the UIGEA was passed) are even publicly traded. The point is these are not fly-by-night companies we’re talking about here. These businesses have grown because of their reputations of providing trustworthy places to play and their excellent customer relations. Admittedly some companies, such as Absolute Poker and Ultimate Bet, have been associated with cheating scandals in the past, but I see that as a major reason why online poker needs to be licensed and regulated. Yes, the charges of bank fraud and money laundering are quite serious, but as far as I can tell those charges only exist because the websites needed to process money transactions to and from the U.S. players (if this goes to trial we will see if there are more shady dealings beyond that). I maintain that if you really want to see shady outfits, then keep trying to make online poker illegal and see what happens. As we’ve learned from prohibition, if there’s a demand for an illegal activity and there’s money to be made from it, people will step in and fill that demand.
MYTH: Online poker is not “real” poker because poker is primarily a game of observing the physical tells of your opponents.
Most professional players will tell you that physical tells are not necessarily the biggest part of their live game. Sure, noticing facial ticks and the way an opponent counts out their chips when they make a bet is definitely a factor of the game, but a lot of players (myself included) rely mainly on fluctuating betting patterns. A common example of this would be a player who tends to bet a larger amount when they’re bluffing and a smaller amount when they want you to call them. In online poker, betting patterns are actually much easier to see because the amount of the bet is always displayed on the computer screen, as opposed to live play unless you’re really good at instantly counting out a stack of multi-denominational chips in your head (which I am not). Two more things that make online poker more appealing for me than live poker: 1. A player can never accidentally or intentionally act out of turn and 2. A dealer can never make a mistake, such as misread a hand and award the pot to the wrong player.
MYTH: We can’t legalize online gambling because if it’s more readily available to gambling addicts, they can lose their house.
Most of the larger reputable poker sites have measures in place to prevent a single person from making multiple deposits to their account in one day. I see this as more of an argument for legalization of all forms of online gambling, with government regulation in place to make sure all of the websites have such safeguards in place. How about a vote of confidence for personal responsibility? Does this mean we should go back to prohibition because there are people with alcohol problems? How about instead we use the tax revenues from poker sites to create free treatment centers for problem gamblers? The bottom line is this: I’m 45-years-old and I do not need anyone telling me I can’t come home from work and play a ten dollar poker tournament in the privacy of my own home. That is simply unacceptable.
MYTH: Online gambling makes it more accessible to children, who could do some real financial damage if they got hold of a credit card.
This is the only credible argument that exists for opponents of online gambling. But it’s still an argument with major holes in it. Again, most of the legitimate sites already have safeguards in place to prevent this from happening. To me, this is yet another argument for government regulation to insure that all poker websites have effective and consistent safeguards in place to prevent underage people from playing. Besides, does it really make any sense to deal with the fear of children somehow participating in adult activities by eliminating all adult-oriented movies, video games and music?
MYTH: A professional poker player is not a noble or productive line of work.
Anyone who makes that statement has no earthly clue how much charity work that poker players do. Consider the charity work of such recognized poker names as Barry Greenstein, Annie Duke, Gavin Smith, Jennifer Harman and Phil Hellmuth just to name a few. In 2003, players Phil Gordon and Rafe Furst set up Bad Beat on Cancer which asks players at poker tournaments to pledge a small percentage of their winnings to the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Over the years, this organization that was created by two poker players has raised over three million dollars for cancer prevention research. PokerStars, one of the websites that was shut down, recently set up ways for players to contribute to Red Cross relief for Japan and also announced they would match whatever amounts players donated. Full Tilt Poker recently raised $240,000 for Japan relief efforts. In the past, all of the indicted poker websites have raised money for disaster relief in Indonesia, China, Haiti and New Orleans. And these are the kinds of businesses that our government is trying to shut down. Great work guys, the world is a whole lot safer.
For more information on what you can do to defend your right to play poker, please visit The Poker Players Alliance at theppa.org.