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Could the Tide Be Turning for Online Poker in the U.S.?

by Brendan Murray |  Published: Apr 06, 2009


Barack ObamaThe beleaguered poker industry in the U.S., reeling since the introduction of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in 2006 which forced most European operators out of the market, has received a significant boost since the start of 2009 with a series of court rulings finding in favour of poker players and online operators.

In January a Pennsylvania judge dismissed a case against a resident who ran a small-stakes home poker game, ruling that poker is a game of skill and does not fall under the Commonwealth's gambling laws.

Columbia County Judge Thomas James said, "The Court finds that Texas hold'em poker is a game where skill predominates over chance. Thus, is it not 'unlawful gambling' under the Pennsylvania Code."

Within days of this, in Colorado, a jury found Kevin Raley, the organiser of a poker league, not guilty of illegal gambling, after Professor Robert Hannum, Professor of Statistics at the University of Denver, presented evidence on behalf of the defence that poker is a game of skill.

Gary Reed, of lobby group Poker Players Alliance, said of the verdict "The PPA is pleased with the outcome of this case. It is further confirmation that poker is indeed a game of skill, not chance. At the same time, the not guilty verdict cements the rights of Colorado citizens to enjoy the American pastime of poker and will allow law enforcement to use its scarce resources to investigate real unlawful activity in the state, not poker games."

Also in January a Kentucky Court of Appeals Board Judge, Thomas Wingate, ruled that the Commonwealth of Kentucky could not seize the domain names of 141 identified online gaming sites used to gamble and play poker in the state.

"The Court of Appeals has now corrected a fundamental misunderstanding by the trial judge in this proceeding of the nature of the Internet and the legality of online poker in Kentucky," said Jeff Ifrah, an attorney acting as part of a team representing the Interactive Gaming Council.

With a new President now firmly in office the recent rulings could bode well for both live and online poker across the U.S.

In a statement after the Colorado ruling John Pappas of the PPA said, "[This] is the third victory for the poker community in less than a week, following on the heels of verdicts in Kentucky and Pennsylvania that protect an individual's right to play poker at a time and place of their choosing. The momentum continues in our favor, and the PPA will continue to champion such causes in other states as well as at the national level."

In early February Barney Frank, chairman of the House of Representatives financial services committee, told the Financial Times of his plans to reintroduce a bill which would establish a framework for licensing and regulating online poker.

The UIGEA regulations became final on January 19, 2009 and implementation must occur before the end of December 2009 but with Democrat Barack Obama now in the White House and a Democrat-led congress now calling the legislative shots, Frank is confident his bill will be better received this time.

"I expect an Obama Department of Justice to be less zealous about locking people up," he told the FT confirming his belief that the prospects for the bill were enhanced because public opinion in the U.S. was demanding the right to gamble online.

While it's clearly too early to say if these developments constitute a fundamental shift in attitude towards online poker among legislators in the U.S., what is evident is that the players on the field have changed and with Obama, a confirmed poker player, in the White House the chances of online poker getting a fairer hearing have certainly improved.