Two years ago, with the election of a Democratic president, with two large majorities in both houses of Congress, it seemed just a matter of time before common sense legislation would finally remove restrictions on online poker. But like many expectations raised in 2008, the reality of 2010 is another story.
Online poker was a booming, thriving recreation for millions of Americans until 2006, when the Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act (UIGEA), became law. The UIGEA wasn’t debated and voted on its own merits by legislators; it was snuck into law by Republicans who attached it to a anti-terrorism port security bill. The law didn’t make online poker illegal, but made it difficult and more costly to transfer funds to and from poker sites. This effectively killed the online poker boom and spooked away all but the most avid and determined players. You can still play poker online – millions of us do – but the games are tougher and fewer new American players are going online to play.
But with a change in political power in Washington, the damage done by the UIGEA looked reversible. First, public opinion isn’t isn’t on the side of the anti-poker politicians. A Strategic Research poll last May found that four out of five respondents opposed legislation that would criminalize online poker. Second, the biggest opposition to online poker comes from the religious right, which has little sway of the Democratic party. And, lastly, rumor had it Obama himself enjoys poker.
And while the White House and Congress had a lot to tackle — a global recession, two wars, health care — it seemed that at some point in the first year or two of Obama’s administration, the UIGEA would be revoked or replaced by a new law that would regulate and liberate American online poker. New online poker laws hold the promise of not only removing the quasi-legal status of online poker, but regulating it and allowing American companies to jump into the industry. Proponents also suggest that bringing online poker into the U.S. legally would boost the economy and generate government revenue. Online poker could become safer, more reliable, and easier for Americans to enjoy.
But as the 111th Congress winds down, efforts to repeal the UIGEA have faded and the future of legal online poker in the U.S. is murkier than ever. Barney Frank (D-MA) pushed for online poker legislation in the House but barely got it out of committee. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid tried to pass online poker legislation in the final weeks of the lame-duck Congress, but failed. And with the GOP retaking control of the House in January, it may be a long wait before online poker is free from the government restrictions. The incoming chair of the House Financial Services committee, Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL), stands as one of poker’s biggest opponents. In 2009, he described online poker as a “particularly predatory and abusive intrusion into American homes.”
Earlier this month, Bachus, opposing Sen. Reid’s online poker bill, argued that “Congress should not take advantage of the young, the weak, and the vulnerable in the name of new revenues to cover more government spending.”
And yet governments do it every day. Almost every state in the U.S. allows adults to spend their money on lotteries. And if Bachus opposes legislation that generates revenues from the weak and vulnerable, why does his own state of Alabama tax alcohol and cigarettes?
Bachus, like anti-poker Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, also rail against poker because it allegedly leads to problem gambling. They share stories about teenagers using their parents’ credit cards to lose money at gambling online, or a college kid named Greg Hogan who got into debt gambling, robbed a bank, and wound up in jail. These anecdotal tales may be unfortunate stories, but they aren’t a compelling reason to take away the freedoms of millions of Americans.
And if sad stories were sufficient grounds to restrict personal freedoms, where would we stop in regulating personal behavior? We don’t ban alcohol in America because every once in a while kids get their hands on beer or vodka. We don’t make cigarettes illegal because they’re unhealthy; we allow adults to judge the risks and decide for themselves. We don’t criminalize hunting because hundreds of Americans are injured or killed in accidents every year.
If someone wants to play poker online, in the privacy of their own home, why should the government intervene to stop them? Of all people, shouldn’t the would-be freedom-loving, government-hating, “nanny state”-bashing Republicans want the federal government to leave Americans alone when it comes to their recreational free time?
I recently had lunch with a friend who didn’t get why online was a big deal. After all, he argued, live poker is so much better. He’s right, of course. I’ll always prefer real cards and chips in my fingers, sitting across the table from live opponents at a felt-covered poker table to sitting in front of a computer screen, alone. It’s a social game, and nothing beats playing face-to-face with a group of other players. But then again, I have a baby and a two-year-old right now, so getting to Atlantic City of Las Vegas — or even 90 minutes away to West Virginia — to play live casino poker just isn’t an easy option. It can be a challenge even to make it to a local home game. For me, and millions of other poker enthusiasts across the country, online poker is a chance to play a game we love in stolen little moments of free time. Or maybe it’s the only way to play the game anywhere near where we live. It provides an opportunity to compete, to challenge ourselves, to develop a skill and improve, and yes, to gamble. Poker isn’t like slots of blackjack, where luck is most, or all, of the game. It’s also game of strategy, logic, analysis, and guts. The mix of strategy, skill, and cunning is why Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Obama are all noted poker enthusiasts.
In America, at least in principle, we allow adults to make decisions for themselves about how to pursue happiness, so long as it doesn’t affect or harm others. Government shouldn’t get in the way of how Americans spend their own recreational time and money. But when it comes to poker, it looks like it will for the foreseeable future.