Poker alliance looks to sway Congress

Updated: July 21, 2009, 1:29 PM ET
Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- The Poker Players Alliance hopes a hot hand in the nation's capital this week will help its efforts to legalize online poker.

As part of its "National Poker Week," the group has set up nearly 100 meetings with members of Congress and their aides, and plans to present a petition to President Barack Obama on Wednesday that had more than 350,000 signatures at last count. Famous poker players such as Annie Duke, Howard Lederer, Andy Bloch and Greg Raymer are participating as well.

On Tuesday night, the poker group will host a charity poker tournament, with proceeds going to the USO and Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The Poker Players Alliance, chaired by former Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., gets its money from the Interactive Gaming Council, a Vancouver, British Columbia-based trade association for online casinos, as well as from the alliance's poker player members.

In 2006, Congress passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which aimed to curb online gambling by prohibiting financial institutions from accepting payments from credit cards, checks or electronic fund transfers to settle online wagers. The law didn't provide a clear definition of unlawful Internet gambling, instead referring to existing federal and state laws, which themselves provoke differing interpretations.

The Justice Department maintained that Internet gambling was illegal even before that law, a position the poker players challenge. Their goal is to pass legislation that would license and regulate online poker.

On Monday, the players hosted a congressional staff briefing, aimed at showing how online poker can be effectively regulated in the U.S. Staffers from about 20 congressional offices attended the meeting, according to the poker group.

The event had the feel of an infomercial. John Pappas, the poker group's executive director, asked questions of the panelists that inevitably ended with friendly responses.

"What about children?" asked Pappas. Is it possible, he asked, to create an online environment that allows adults to play but keeps minors off?

Yes, responded panelist Parry Aftab, founder and executive director of WiredSafety.org, a New York-based cyber-safety group. She pointed to parental control technology on computer operating systems.

And panelist Paul Mathews, an independent consultant and a former executive with International Game Technology, said online gambling can actually help decrease pathological gambling by letting players set limits on how much they want to bet or lose ahead of time.

But Roberta Combs, president of the Christian Coalition of America, which opposes online gambling, was not moved by any of that.

"We still don't support it," she said in a telephone interview. "When you start gambling on the Internet, it's just too accessible. You can do it from home, and it's so much easier. We just feel like that's an issue that has a tendency to break up the family."

Combs didn't seem concerned that the poker group's efforts would have much of an impact.

"I don't think it's going to come up" in Congress, she said. "If we think it will, then we definitely will work it hard."

The poker group supports legislation by Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, that would regulate rather than ban Internet gambling.

In its petition to Obama, titled "Poker is Not a Crime," the group pushes for poker to be exempted from the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, and for licensing and regulating of online poker.

At least half the $16 billion Internet gambling industry, which is largely hosted on overseas sites, is estimated to be fueled by U.S. bettors.

The federal government recently froze more than $30 million in the accounts of payment processors that handle the winnings of thousands of online poker players. The Poker Players Alliance is trying to get that money returned.


Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press