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Best of Liz Benston

Gaming Guru

Liz Benston
 

Poker Players Alliance to Lobby

7 October 2005

LAS VEGAS -- One of the most valuable poker skills is the ability to successfully bluff your opponents.

And that's what a new Las Vegas-based group is trying to do: Bluff that it is a grass-roots effort of kitchen-table poker players, rather than the professional lobbying effort funded by billion-dollar Web poker Goliaths that it really is.

The Poker Players Alliance says it wants to sign up tens of thousands of recreational poker players, each of whom would pay $15 in dues.

The group would lobby federal, state and local officials to help fight a potential federal ban on Internet gambling and stop raids on community poker games by state and local law enforcement officials.

But much of the seed money behind the group comes from online casinos -- lucrative operations that make most of their billions from American gamblers despite the game's legal ambiguity.

The alliance's organizers believe that with an estimated 60 million Americans flocking to poker tables in casinos, Internet card rooms, bars and community centers, the time has never been more ripe for poker players to flex their political muscle in Washington.

As a call to action, the group has created a Web site and is publishing magazine ads and writing articles in trade publications. The pieces detail a rash of police raids on community poker games in recent months -- many of them organized to benefit charities.

To hear founder Sam Gorewitz tell it, poker games everywhere are under attack by overzealous federal and state prosecutors looking to curb a pastime that's as much part of American culture as baseball.

"We feel the government should not be telling people what to do," said Gorewitz, a poker player and former marketing executive in Washington. "In our eyes, poker is legal. Our main objective is to keep it legal. We want poker players to be able to play poker in the venue of their choice."

Backing up that rhetoric is hired help from a high-powered Washington lobbying firm, the Federalist Group. Hired by the alliance in June, the Federalist Group has represented several major companies including Citigroup, Motorola and Chevron. The firm has about 10 lobbyists on staff and isn't representing any other gaming company at present, Federalist Group Senior Vice President Chris Giblin said.

The alliance faces an uphill battle.

The Justice Department, citing three federal laws now on the books, believes Internet gambling is illegal in the United States. The department's unwavering position has so far prevented states such as Nevada from legalizing Internet betting, even within its own borders.

Offshore Internet gambling sites have largely thumbed their noses at the feds, offering online casino games 24 hours a day, far from the reach of the law. Many of these companies advertise in the United States, where at least half of the estimated $12 billion in 2005 gambling revenue generated online comes from.

The Poker Players Alliance, like other Internet gambling advocates, maintains that the Justice Department's position is flawed and ripe for a court challenge.

"There is no federal law that criminalizes a person who plays poker online," said Tony Cabot, a Las Vegas attorney serving as the legal adviser for the Poker Players Alliance. Cabot is a well-known Internet gambling expert who has advised Internet operators and regulators worldwide.

The group's first order of business is an attempt to fight a bill expected to be introduced in Congress by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., a staunch gambling opponent who has so far failed to pass an outright ban on Internet gambling transactions.

Quibbling by competing interests such as commercial casinos, tribal casinos and lotteries over the language of the bill has so far killed Kyl's previous attempts to ban Internet gambling. But Gorewitz believes online poker could be in "serious jeopardy" if Kyl continues to pursue his agenda. Kyl's office declined to comment for this story.

Internet gambling operators provided some seed money for the alliance, although Gorewitz declined to name names. The group is working with Internet poker rooms to sign up customers and is in discussions to potentially have poker sites reimburse players' membership fees, which cost about $15.

The involvement of offshore poker operators could keep Las Vegas and other U.S. casino companies, wary of offending state and federal regulators, from helping out the cause.

Over the next six to 12 months, the group hopes to have signed up "tens of thousands" of poker players as members, Gorewitz said.

The alliance isn't a front for Internet poker rooms, he said. Membership fees will come from individual gamblers and not corporations.

"We need to have a real grass-roots organization," he said.

Changing state and local policies on gambling presents an even tougher challenge for the alliance, which hopes to eventually lobby on a state-by-state basis.

States have various and conflicting gambling laws. Only 11 states permit commercial casinos, with about 18 other states offering tribal casinos or card rooms where people can play poker. Several states, including the birthplace of Texas hold 'em, don't allow casino-style gambling.

Nevada is one of few states that actually prohibits online gambling. But it is also one of the few that allows people to play poker for money in the privacy of their homes.

Largely unaware of their states' Byzantine gambling laws, poker players nationwide are setting up informal games in bars and community centers. Aiming to capitalize on the poker craze, charities and nonprofit organizations are setting up games as fundraisers with profits going to recoup operating costs.

Even charity games are running afoul of some state laws. While stories of police raiding senior centers and charity tournaments have provoked public outrage, law enforcement officials say they're simply following laws that prohibit anyone from taking a cut or "rake" of the proceeds -- laws that in many cases were little used before poker's wild popularity.

As an example, the attorney general in Oklahoma in May issued an opinion that poker tournaments played outside of tribal casinos are illegal. Even free poker games for prizes and poker games in which players' entry fees are paid back to tournament winners aren't allowed. But the floodgates have already opened to poker, which is being played in bars and other businesses across the state.

In recent years poker advocates have attempted to distance poker games from other gambling games. In spite of its checkered past, poker has been played for about 200 years and is essentially a game of skill, supporters say.

If defined as a skill game, poker could someday be exempted from gambling laws that apply to games of chance or could be given a pass by local law enforcement authorities with bigger fish to fry, they say.

"We're not going to accomplish all that we want to overnight," said Nolan Dalla, a poker writer and media director for the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas. "But it's not a pipe dream to say this can happen. The game has never been as popular as it is today."

Dalla, who recently joined the Poker Players Alliance, has written articles promoting the game of poker for the past 15 or so years that "wouldn't have much impact" because they weren't reaching a wide audience. There's strength in numbers, he said.

"If we sign up just 1 percent (of U.S poker players) that's 600,000 people," he said. "Could we have launched this group 10, 15 years ago? Sure. Would we have been successful? Probably not."

Poker regulars, especially those who partake in riskier games of Texas hold 'em, tend to be a passionate bunch, Dalla said.

"Poker is not like craps or a slot machine," he said. "If there were casinos popping up all over I would understand (the concern). But we're talking about charity events and community tournaments."