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Copyright 2004 The Columbus Dispatch
Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
September 13, 2004 Monday, Home Final
HEADLINE: HIGH STAKES; ONLINE
POKER deals a risky hand as players participate in illegal
BYLINE: John Ross, THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
In the virtual world, there are no
No one can see opponents smoke cigarettes,
wear mirrored sunglasses or fiddle with $100 chips. And the only
poker faces that players
see online are grainy 2-inch photos posted around the screen.
poker is just an approximation of its real-world counterpart,
but players of all ages log on in droves for an experience that
is more accessible, more informative and less intimidating than
a real-world game.
"It's super convenient," said Annie
Duke in a recent phone interview. Duke, who lives in Portland,
Ore., is the top female money-winner in the history of the World
Series of Poker.
"You don't have to plan ahead to go to
a game. You can play at more than one table at once, and you can
get more hands per hour."
She said that the help players can get through
online record-keeping more than makes up for what is lost by not
interacting with people live.
But online gambling is still gambling, and
U.S. laws that prohibit it haven't deterred
Ohio State University graduate Brian Quinn, 25. The Virginia resident
gambles daily, often before going to bed
-- once for six hours straight -- and occasionally when he awakens.
He's lost thousands of dollars but has won
even more at Partypoker.com, Ultimatebet.com and Pokerstars.com.
"I don't consider it gambling," he
said. "It's a game of skill."
For him, winning means he'll improve his chances
to face his idol, Ultimatebet.com player Phil Hellmuth, a nine-time
winner of the World Championship of Poker.
"It's amazing. I can be at the same table
as (him) in three months if I win online. You could play a lifetime
of baseball and never get the chance to take the field with Ken
Quick and easy online play has bred a new generation
of poker players.
Chris Moneymaker, a 27-year-old accountant
from Tennessee, gained a berth in the 2003 World Series of Poker
in Las Vegas by winning on Pokerstars.com. He more than recovered
his $40 online-entry fee with the $2.5 million first-place purse.
Reality poker shows and coverage by ESPN of
the World Series of Poker tour are attracting millions of players
and onlookers to the worlds of Texas
Hold 'Em, seven-card stud
and Omaha high-low.
"People are saying, 'You know what, I
can do this,' " Quinn said.
While opportunities online are found easily,
playing breaks many federal laws, including the 1961 Interstate
Wire Act, an anti-racketeering law that bans the use of communications
technology for placing wagers.
But the U.S. Department of Justice's attempts
to stop online gambling have been limited: Many operations are
set up offshore, out of reach of U.S.
"On the Internet, it's easy for the sellers
(of porn, spam or gambling) to hide offshore," said Peter
Swire, who teaches a course on the law and cyberspace at Ohio
State University law school. "There is the idea of speedbumps:
If you make something more difficult to use, then casual users
won't do it. But it won 't stop the dedicated users."
Online gambling revenues topped $600 million
in 1998, 10 times as much as was reported in 1997.
Nearly $126 million was won or lost during
one 24-hour span this month, according to Pokerpulse.com, a site
that tracks worldwide poker activity. And this year, online gambling
revenues could reach $7.6 billion, according to gambling-industry
analyst Christiansen Capital Advisors.
With prosecution of offshore operations difficult,
U.S. authorities have lately been taking a new approach -- by
going after the money. In June 2003, for example, U.S. authorities
seized $3.2 million from Discovery Communications for displaying
online casino ads on its cable-TV channels, which the justice
department claims aids and abets illegal activities.
Increased scrutiny of such advertising has
caused Clear Channel, Infinity Broadcasting, Google and Yahoo!
to stop running such ads.
In Ohio, at the state and local level, players
say they have a relatively free hand.
The state attorney general's office has not
taken any significant action to curb online gambling, spokeswoman
Michelle Gatchell said.
"I have not seen any state or local enforcement
on the issue," said Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien.
"It needs to be uniquely addressed at the federal level because
it involves interstate commerce."
Most who gamble online don't know it's illegal.
And for law-enforcement officials, the battle
is partly a public-relations problem.
"People see these ads for offshore books
or whatever," said a Justice Department official who spoke
on condition of anonymity.
"And nowhere do they mention, 'By the
way, it's illegal.' "
Box Story:Internet gambling: what it means
* To you: Betting on sports, playing cards, bookmaking and other
forms of gambling -- including those conducted online -- are illegal
in Ohio. Betting is largely regulated by individual states.
* To betting operations: According to the Justice Department,
offshore-wagering outfits are breaking the U.S. 1961 Interstate
Wire Act, the Travel Act and other laws that forbid using phones
and the Net to process gambling transactions.
Key developments in online-betting operations and the legal fights
* 1995: Internet Casinos Inc. and Casino City Inc. open online
* 1998: Charges are brought against 21 U.S. citizens for owning
Internet- and telephone-based betting operations. All were convicted,
but some remain fugitives.
* February 2003: New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer signs
an agreement with 10 major financial institutions to block credit-card
transactions dealing with online gambling.
* June 2003: The U.S. Department of Justice begins investigating
companies that sell ads to offshore Internet gambling companies.
Letters are sent to media outlets warning them that "aiding
and abetting" online gambling operations is illegal.
* March: In a case brought by Antigua and Barbuda against the
United States, the World Trade Organization issues a preliminary
ruling that U.S. laws outlawing Internet gambling violate global-trade
* April: The Justice Department seizes $3.2 million from Discovery
The amount was for the cost of the ads that Discovery Networks
ran on Paradisepoker.com, operated by Tropical Paradise of Costa
Rica. Bending to federal pressure, search engines Google and Yahoo!
are among those companies that decline to accept ads for online-gambling
* August: Casino City Inc., which runs Casinocity.com, sues the
Justice Department, saying that displaying ads for offshore Internet
gambling sites is protected free speech.
Sources: Dispatch staff and wire reports
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