Pros deal themselves in for online hearing in D.C.

ON GAMBLING

April 04, 2006|By BILL ORDINE

Poker superstars Howard Lederer, Chris "Jesus" Ferguson and Greg Raymer will be gathering today for another high-stakes affair. But instead of betting, bluffing and check-raising each other, the card pros will be voicing their thoughts in Washington about proposed federal legislation that would definitively stamp online poker as illegal.

At the moment, online poker and some types of casino-style gambling operate in a legal limbo. While it is clear that online sports gambling is illegal and operators of such sites can be -- and have been -- prosecuted, there is debate over whether the laws that apply to Internet betting on a football game also apply to betting pocket aces.

Separate pieces of legislation introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, and Rep. Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican, would, in various ways, bolster prohibitions on the broader spectrum of Internet gambling, including poker, by prohibiting gambling enterprises from using the Internet to accept wagers and by choking off financial transactions to those same Web sites.

And that's where many in the poker world take exception.

Lederer, Ferguson and Raymer will attend a discussion on Capitol Hill today, along with a policy expert from the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank, and the president of the Poker Players Alliance, a grass-roots advocacy group, about the proposed bills. There is a hearing tomorrow in the House Judiciary Committee on Goodlatte's legislation.

"Poker is a game of skill," Raymer said yesterday. "To put it with slots and roulette and craps, which are purely games of chance, is a mistake."

Michael Bolcerek, president of the Poker Players Alliance, which says it has 20,000 members, objects not only to what he believes is an infringement on poker players' chosen form of entertainment but to the broader issue of the government potentially asserting influence over where people can go on the Internet.

Goodlatte's attempt to pass similar legislation in 2000 was scuttled by now disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who was then representing a lottery company. Abramoff was sentenced recently to nearly six years in prison for business fraud.

In introducing his legislation in February, Goodlatte said that "since [2000], Internet gambling has quadrupled around the world and many of those folks are engaged in sucking illegal, unregulated Internet gambling receipts from U.S. citizens."

The Virginia congressman contends that gambling on the Web, particularly with its allure to underage gamblers, is especially insidious and argues that federal law enforcement has been hamstrung by judicial interpretations of the Wire Act that view its reach as limited to sports betting.

It's that very ambiguity that Goodlatte's bill would clear up. In addition, it would allow law enforcement to use injunctions to get assistance from Internet service providers to remove or disable access to hypertext links to online gambling sites that violate the law, according to a summary of the bill on Goodlatte's Web site.

Even if the Goodlatte bill would become law, gamblers at their computers at home -- should they be able to get through to an Internet gambling site -- would not be subject to prosecution, at least not under federal statutes. State law, though, is another matter.

But the Goodlatte legislation would enable federal prosecutors to target operators of non-sports gambling Web sites, including cyber poker rooms, for prosecution. And it raises maximum penalties from two to five years.

Lederer and Ferguson are associated with Fulltilt.com, one of the Internet's most popular poker-playing stops. And Raymer, the winner of the 2004 World Series of Poker main event, qualified for that tournament on PokerStars, an Internet site that currently sponsors him.

However, Raymer said that almost everyone in poker has a vested interest, direct or indirect, in online card playing because it is that phenomenon, along with TV exposure, that has fueled the game's popularity in brick-and-mortar casinos and card rooms.

Online poker advocates believe the government would better serve citizens by taking a hand in not only accepting the reality of online gaming but in making sure it's legitimate and along the way, collect taxes -- just as individual states do with casinos.

"Right now there's regulation [of Internet poker], but it's on a piecemeal basis -- an Indian tribe in Canada, or [agencies in] Costa Rica, or Gibraltar -- but the No. 1 market is still the United States," said Raymer, who was a patent attorney for a drug company before turning poker pro full time. "And I think most American consumers would prefer that regulation be handled by a federal agency."

bill.ordine@baltsun.com

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