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Copyright © 2006 San Francisco Chronicle
Poker players fight online gambling ban
Washington -- America's 70 million poker players say they aren't
bluffing in their resistance to the latest congressional efforts
to ban online casino gambling.
To dramatize that determination, their leader, San Franciscan
Michael Bolcerek -- president of the national Poker Players Alliance
-- staged some most unusual events on Capitol Hill Tuesday. He
brought three big-name professional poker stars to court the press,
lobby with members of Congress and attend an evening reception
for members and their staffs at which a few hands of Texas
Hold 'Em were probably played. Not for money, of course.
Congress is considering legislation that seeks either to get
banks to block customers' transactions with overseas Internet
gambling sites or force Internet service providers to block access
to poker Web sites. Poker players say the proposed bans attack
nothing less than the American way of life.
"I'd hate for 70 million poker players to wake up one day
and learn that their game has been made illegal,'' said pro Howard
Lederer, who with his sister Annie Duke forms a sister-brother
pro duo in a sport that has become a TV staple the last few years.
Bolcerek, a Cow Hollow resident who says he plays in a weekly
game with friends, portrayed poker as a game of skill that's as
American as apple pie and motherhood.
"Poker is an American tradition. It has its roots in New
Orleans, just like jazz. Many presidents played, including Gen.
Grant, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon. So did Chief Justice William
Rehnquist,'' said Bolcerek, a longtime high-tech executive who
took up his post as paid president of the 20,000-member alliance
just a few months ago.
His group estimates that of the 70 million Americans who play
various forms of poker, 23 million do so online. Of that figure,
3 million actually play for money via the Internet, said Bolcerek,
whose group has opened an office in Washington, and plans a presence
in Las Vegas and San Francisco.
While Bolcerek said the alliance doesn't have direct financial
ties to any of the online casinos, he won't disclose the names
of the few wealthy individuals he said provided the organization's
Instead of banning online
gaming, the alliance says Congress should regulate and tax
it, turning it into a profitable domestic business that can create
There are at least three bills pending in Congress that seek
to ban Americans' from playing poker or other casino games online
for money. It is already illegal for online casinos to operate
domestically, so the multi-billion-dollar business has moved overseas.
Credit card companies have also been ordered not to allow customers
to use their accounts for the offshore gambling, so players have
switched to online payment services that are also based overseas
and pay with checks, debit cards and electronic funds transfers.
Sponsors of the legislation cite several reasons for their proposed
crackdown, an idea that has been approved by both houses in Congress
in the past, but not in the identical form required for sending
legislation to the president. They say the lure of games that
people can play at home on their computers is addictive and could
be financially ruinous.
The bills' supporters also say the games present unfair competition
for the regulated, taxed and legal bricks-and-mortar casinos and
card clubs. And they say prosecutors have tied online gambling
to money laundering and even potentially to terrorist financing.
They also say the ease of online betting makes it all too easy
for underage players to get deep into debt.
"This is the most addictive form of gambling that's even
been invented,'' said David Robertson, former chairman of the
National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.
"You've got a casino in your home now,'' added Robertson,
of Cody, Wyo. "You don't have to get in your car or go somewhere.
Nothing in Congress is ever straightforward, and the poker proposals
are no exception.
The bills, while trying to ban games like poker and blackjack,
carve out exemptions for some online betting on horse races and
state-run lotteries. The poker backers call those exemptions hypocritical
and say they show that powerful lobbies have managed to protect
some forms of gambling at their expense.
That brings in Jack Abramoff, the convicted lobbyist whose influence-peddling
schemes are at the heart of scandals that have already nabbed
several congressional aides and threaten several lawmakers.
Among Abramoff's clients was eLottery, a company that opposed
earlier versions of the bills that made online lotteries illegal.
Abramoff helped block those bills. Although Abramoff is gone,
the bills moving forward allow some use of the Internet by state
The advocates of the bills now paint their bills as part of lobbying
reform efforts, and say the Abramoff affair has boosted prospects
for their legislation to finally become law in 2006.
"Chances are very good this year,'' said Robertson, of the
bills moving through committees now.
"The Abramoff scandal proves that gambling corrupts. It
wasn't anything other than gambling money that funded Abramoff,''
But the poker fans
say Abramoff is a smokescreen for proposals that would lead to
new government intrusions into Americans' private lives.
"Monitoring what American citizens do in their own homes
on their own time with their own money is not the federal government's
business,'' said Radley Balko, a policy analyst at the libertarian
Balko said Congress was putting itself in the position of reacting
to the Abramoff scandal "by limiting the civil liberties
of Americans. ... This is insane.''
E-mail Edward Epstein at firstname.lastname@example.org
Poker Bonus Code: TPF150
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