Online poker in Florida? Don’t get giddy just yet

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I hate to be a downer.

I’m always one of the most positive people in the room. When Frowny McFrownerson is going on and on about how the world is falling apart, I’m right there saying, “Yes, but what about …”

But when it comes to Florida House Bill 1441 — “The Internet Poker Consumer Protection & Revenue Generation Act of 2010” — I’m sorry. There’s just not much that’ll put a smile on this face.

The bill seeks to create and regulate an intrastate Internet poker network in Florida — for Florida residents only and Florida residents who are physically in the state when they are playing. In other words, this isn’t knighting the PokerStars and FullTilts of the world with official state acceptance and a tax bill — it’s creating a David-sized monopolistic competitor to those Goliaths.

While I applaud Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Wellington, for trying to advance any poker legislation, this bill faces long odds toward passage, toward implementation and, ultimately, toward acceptance by the poker playing community.

PASSAGE: This is a big year for gaming legislation in Florida. A bill to strip the state of bet and buy-in limits and to expand poker hours is back and appears to nearly be a certainty to take effect July 1. And, surprise, as of this writing, it looks like we may see a Seminole Compact that (most) everyone can agree on.

For a Legislature that’s always apprehensive about expanding gaming’s footprint in Florida, that’s a lot to accomplish in one session. Add Internet poker to the mix, and I think you’ll see lawmakers waive it off like the dessert cart after a big steak dinner.
But if I’m wrong …

IMPLEMENTATION: If the bill passes, it’ll be a while before anyone in Florida is click-raising the flop. Competitive bids need to be screened and a network created. That’s an arduous process in any application, but since this bill puts the state’s Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering in charge of it all, well, I wish it luck.

I mean no disrespect to the division or any of its hard-working employees, but by many of those employees’ own admission, the division doesn’t have the expertise to properly regulate the state’s brick-and-mortar poker rooms. How anyone thinks that same division has the expertise to create a first-in-the-nation intrastate poker apparatus just isn’t being honest with reality.

But if I’m wrong ….

ACCEPTANCE: If the bill passes and the division finds a way to properly create and regulate it, well, guess what … we’re only halfway home. And here’s why:

The Internet is littered with the carcasses of dozens of upstart Internet poker rooms that failed to find an audience. Anyone with a six-figure bank account and connections in the Caribbean can open an online poker room; but attracting enough players to make it viable is a different challenge.

Think of it this way: PokerStars has the entire world from which to build a player base. If you want to play 1-cent/2-cent pot-limit 5-card draw at 3:26 a.m., chances are you’ll find a game on PokerStars. But this new Florida site can only draw people from one state. With that shallow of a pool, it might even be a challenge to find a $10-$20 no-limit game at any time of the day. And when players constantly log on and find nothing to their liking, they move on to somewhere they’ll find something they like.

This bill does nothing to prevent players from playing on existing online sites. Obviously, it’s assuming the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act will finally take root and close the door on the competition, but we all know that’s the longest of longshots.
BUT …

Remember when I told you I have an uncanny, and often annoying, way of finding something positive in just about anything? Well, here it is: The bill would permit all licensed parimutuel poker rooms in Florida to create a “skin” on this new network.
It’s unrealistic to expect Ocala Poker or Miami Jai-Alai to run $1 satellites for their tournaments or offer microlimit cash games. But they could if they had an online room linked to their operations. And it works in reverse, too. It’s not smart business for rooms such as Gulfstream Park or Flagler Dog Track to close its profitable cash tables one day to run a huge multitable tournament. But if that same room could host that big-money buy-in tournament online, then the cash games can thrive. 

Intriguing possibilities, for sure. But not intriguing enough to warrant the expense and hassle of creating it, especially when you consider similar ideas in Iowa, California and New Jersey are helping to set the table for what we all really want (and what makes the most sense) federal regulation and acceptance of the existing online poker industry.

Rep. Abruzzo, I admire your moxie. But I’m pulling for Congressman Barney Frank to win this race.

— Email Scott Long at scott@anteupmagazine.com