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Emily D. Swoboda

Q & A: Jim Tabilio

25 February 2008

A new bill in California's Assembly proposes studying the feasibility of an intrastate online poker scheme based on exemptions built into the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The initiative is solely supported by a grassroots non-profit organization called the Poker Voters of America (formerly the Poker Players of America), formed by a group of political veterans who love the game.

IGN spoke with PVoA President Jim Tabilio about the group's formation, purpose and vision.

Q: Why was the PVoA formed?

A: The PPoA was formed when the bans were being talked about the first time. It was envisioned as a membership organization. We launched the Web site and we probably signed up 4,000 or 5,000 people, but there was never a big push for that. We always had other things to do and it just seemed like a major situation.

Then Poker Players Alliance came along and kinda did what we had envisioned doing. So, basically PPoA has been a bunch of us sitting around for the last year saying "What do we do to make this happen?" And what came out of that are conversations I've been having with Lloyd Levine about the potential for revenue for the state to take advantage of the exemptions in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act for intrastate poker.

When Lloyd told us he was interested, we formed a non-profit group called Poker Voters of America, which really takes a different tack from some of the different groups that are out there now, who are doing a good job -- I don't want to take away from them.

We're the nuts and bolts guys; we know how to make this stuff happen when it's legislative or campaign oriented.

Q: When was the PVoA formed?

A: Legally, the papers were filed about six weeks ago. It's a non-profit organization [formed] specifically to do state-by-state legalization efforts.

Q: Who is behind the group?

A: Right now there are 10 or 12 political consultants, mostly in California, but also in Washington, D.C. We have folks who work all across the country, but also live in different parts of the country. Half of us are in California.

It's not a membership organization at this point. It's really a group of guys who are poker players and political professionals.

Q: How is it supported?

A: Well, right now there's no need to support it. It's just a bunch of us doing what we do in our spare time. I think as we go down the line we want to do a fiscal study and some polling, and at that point we'll start figuring out how we want to do that. But at this point it's 10 or 12 of us throwing in our time, and somebody's going to have to pay for letterhead.

Q: What is the group's message?

A: Poker is an all-American game.

There is no substantive difference between the way 70 million people play poker every week than online. Lots of people like to do it; it is a harmless and fun entertainment value. People ought to be able to make up their own minds about how they want to spend their entertainment dollar. And in fact, all the arguments that have been made against online poker are best dealt with if you legalize it, whether it's age verification, protection against identity theft or regulation to make sure the consumers are protected -- none of those things are possible of you don't legalize it. An unfortunate fact of life here is that law enforcement agencies -- governmental agencies -- do not have the capability to go out and enforce regulations in an unregulated environment.

Q: How often do you get mistaken for the Poker Players Alliance?

A: No. We actually started first. I have to tell you they did a great job, particularly on the public relations side. They went out, organized poker players, understood what we call the "earned-media" side of this was and branded it and did a great job. We had a slightly different approach, but they were doing what needed to be done at that time.

So, occasionally somebody would say something. I would run into people at the World Series of Poker and I'd be wearing my PPoA hat and they'd say, "Oh, I got your e-mail." Obviously, they were talking about the Poker Players Alliance.

That's one of the reasons, quite frankly, we didn't spend a lot more time and effort. We thought [they] were out there doing what we had talked about.

Q: Have you ever thought about working with them?

A: Yeah, down the line.

Obviously, this is something we have specific knowledge of here in California. We all work in the state capitol on and off. We understand how the process works here. We understand the political process of how you build support coalitions with the very specific intent of getting legislation passed, which is different than what the Poker Players Alliance does, particularly since they are on a national scale. But, we're really the guys here to make it happen in California. So, with that specific goal in mind we essentially have a mission. We've kind of defined it. It's pretty limited -- in this case getting this bill passed and then the regulations written -- but anybody who wants to help support that we're happy to have them do that.

Q: As sponsor of AB2026, what is the PPoA's role?

A: We're doing two things. The first is coalition building, which is "get everybody into the tent."

So, our suggestion was bring in the attorney general, justice department and the industry and get the benefit of their experience.

Our first task was basically to bring people to the tent and let them know what we were doing -- to let them know that it's just a study bill. Nobody has veto power over what's going to be in it; nobody's going to dictate what's in it. The important thing is an open process that involves as broad a range of people in the business as possible.

Our second task, once the bill is drafted and ready to go, is helping make people aware of what's in the bill and generating support. We call it awareness, persuasion and mobilization. Those are the three stages of generating support -- whether it's a political campaign or legislation.

Q: If you could go back to Sept. 30, 2006, what would you do to change the outcome of the Senate vote on the SAFE Port Act?

A: I don't think there was anything that could be done. I think, with the way that Congress has for inserting earmarks in bills without anybody knowing about it at the last minute, there was clearly a very specific goal in getting the I-gaming ban into law.

I don't think they felt they had the votes and they certainly didn't want to put up with the open process of going through it. But they had the votes to inter this into the port bill -- at that point, nobody was going to vote against the port security bill because of the online poker ban. Politicians, officeholders, you're not going to home on Election Day in 2006 and say, "I put the country at risk because I wanted to protect online poker." So, from a political strategy, Bill Frist and the people supporting him had an excellent strategy. They blew a fastball past everybody when they weren't looking.

Q: We've two candidates running for president that support doing a study on Internet gambling regulation and one who is in favor of regulation. Do you see I-gaming policy changing if one of these candidates gets elected?

A: Well, based on their current stands, clearly the two Democratic candidates at this point seem more amenable to talking about it. And I think Sen. McCain, who is a colleague of Sen. Kyle, has a different view. However, one of the things about politics that you just need to keep in mind is that what happens today is not necessarily what is going to happen tomorrow. So, it doesn't make any difference who gets elected in one sense. So, you have three people who at least seem to be open to being persuaded. They are all intelligent folks. They all seem pretty rational. I think Sen. McCain is not as supportive at this moment. But I think all of these folks if they become president they are going to take a look at everything.

Q & A: Jim Tabilio is republished from
Emily D. Swoboda
Emily D. Swoboda