A commentary by Christopher Cosenza
Garth Brooks has a song called Unanswered Prayers, and in it he thanks God for not giving him what he had prayed for in the past because if God had, then he wouldn’t have what he has now.
The online poker world almost had one of these moments last month. Harry Reid, the Democratic senator from Nevada, very nearly pulled off the Herculean task of getting an online poker regulation bill put to a vote as part of bigger, must-pass legislation during the lame-duck session. It would’ve answered a lot of poker players’ prayers, but as Garth would point out, that’s not always such a good thing.
When players heard online poker regulation might actually get introduced there was joy on Fifth Street. But upon further review this bill smelled as fishy as a postflop check from an under-the-gun raiser. Yes, we all want online poker to be regulated; no one likes legally participating in a game that’s thought of as an illegal industry. But at what cost, and at who’s expense?
For the uninitiated, everything that happens on Capitol Hill comes with a catch. In this case, Mr. Reid nearly snatched an opportunity to pay back his IOUs to MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment for their contributions to a re-election campaign that saw him squeak past Republican challenger Sharron Angle.
And wasn’t Reid an opponent of online poker once? Funny what money can do to a politician’s views, isn’t it? Once the big boys decided they wanted a slice of the Internet pie it suddenly became very important to Reid to get online poker regulated, and regulated just for his interests. But more on that later.
Think back to when the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was attached to the SAFE Port Act in 2006. Weren’t you about as livid as Phil Hellmuth Jr. after getting his kings cracked by 10-7 offsuit? How could these politicians attach something so clearly thoughtless and ineffective to such an important bill at the stroke of midnight during the last session before an extended break? Oh, wait, that’s how politics work. It’s disgusting, and it’s sad. And that’s exactly what Reid was trying to do. The old “good-for-the-goose-good-for- the-gambler ” strategy.
But did we really want to win that way? Did we want Nevada’s biggest angle-shooter, pardon the pun, to get us regulation the same way online poker was sabotaged in 2006? Reid’s biggest mistake was allowing a draft of the bill to be leaked to the media. Once the Republicans got wind of his intentions (namely Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl), Reid’s bill had about as much chance of getting attached to any must-pass legislation as hitting a one-outer on the river.
It’s no secret that most of the GOP is dead set against online wagering, and the Republicans were smart in 2006 as no one outside of Congress knew the UIGEA was coming. Hell, most of them didn’t even know, either. But this time, Reid dropped the ball, and you know what? In the end it was a good thing. Why?
Imagine if your boss walked up to you tomorrow and said, “Hey, you’re fired for at least 15 months, possibly three years, but after that you can come back. Oh, and you can’t collect unemployment, and there’s no company in this entire state that will offer you a job in your field.” What would you do? In this economy finding a job is next to impossible, and not every online poker pro can just go to a live casino or cardroom and make a living. Think about how many states don’t even have legal live poker and how many players are making a living in those states by playing online. And even for the states that do have casinos, some of these online pros will never find the stakes they need to earn a living.
One state — Washington — banned online poker years ago, and its senator, Margarita Prentice, was so callous toward her suddenly unemployed online poker-playing constituents that she said, “Let them go pump gas.” She must be a descendent of Marie Antoinette.
Isn’t that what Harry Reid was saying to the thousands of online poker pros by insisting on a 15-month blackout period and countless subsequent obstacles just so his backers could catch up to the PokerStars and Full Tilts of the world?
“We 100 percent oppose the 15-month freeze and have fought it every step of the way,” Poker Players Alliance executive director John Pappas told Ante Up. “It is clear the status quo is not tenable in the long term, so some disruption is understandable; we just think 15 months is quite penal for the players.”
Indeed. Who cares if these people suddenly have no means to support themselves, and who cares if those working for online sites lose their jobs for anywhere from 15 months to three years. (In early versions of Reid’s bill there was verbiage that said established sites would have to wait an additional two years after the first license was issued to ensure a level playing field.)
And so what if disabled players, who find it difficult to go to a casino, will have no chance to play the game our presidents have played in the White House throughout history? Sorry Indian tribes, no rake for you. But the gaming giants who paved the way for Reid’s re-election would be able to eat as much cake as they like.
Did the PPA and the online poker giants want this bill to pass? Sure, but they definitely weren’t happy with the way it was written. Now they get a second chance. Yes, talk of online poker legislation may have to be put on the backburner for at least two more years. Yes, anti-gambling right-wingers may now choose to ratchet up the enforcement of the UIGEA to put more heat on payment processors, thus making it that much more difficult to play online. But poker players always find a way. Perhaps this two-year period will give online poker advocates time to come up with a better strategy and a better bill, and it will give America another chance to elect the right politicians with the right attitude and the right pull. And next time, be careful what you pray for, OK?