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Online Poker Prohibition

by Michael Cappelletti |  Published: Nov 30, 2011


Michael CappellettiOnce upon a time, our federal government passed legislation which attempted to prohibit people from obtaining and drinking alcoholic beverages. That “Prohibition” turned out to be a great fiasco. Not only did the rest of the world (especially Europeans) laugh at us, but even many of our most respectable citizens openly flaunted the law. I remember being told that both of my grandfathers made wine in their basements.

Nevertheless, Prohibition lasted some thirteen years before our government finally wised up and realized that moderate alcoholic consumption was an area where government should avoid moralistic judgments. And perhaps profit from taxing it instead! One would think that perhaps some lessons were learned?

On the Ides of April (15th), now referred to as “Black Friday,” the U.S. Department of Justice (where I served as a lawyer for 27 years) indicted a number of online poker site executives and three major U.S. online poker sites were closed on the grounds that they violated the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 (which essentially prohibits taking bets over the internet). Ironically, this apparent attempt to prohibit or at least hinder online poker in the United States was probably encouraged (and might well have been lobbied for) by several special interest groups who might well be losing potential gambling revenue to the existing online sites.

But why is the U.S. Government getting involved with playing poker online? Is the government really trying to protect us from losing our money gambling? And is poker gambling? Or is it a game or sport that is usually played for money? Is it gambling when golf or tennis players compete for prize money? And is it gambling when the winning players of the Super Bowl and the World Series (of baseball) get extra money? Or is winning at any sport usually because of talent and skill (and also some luck).

In poker, as in all sports, there is certainly some amount of luck, but there is also a large element of skill. The Supreme Court of California has ruled that poker is “a game of skill” (as opposed to “a gambling game”) and hence there are many legal poker rooms/casinos (where poker is played for money) throughout California. Public poker is also legal in many states where gambling is illegal, in addition to those states where gambling is legal. So why would we have a national prohibition of online poker if casino and card room poker is quite legal in many states?

Does the public really need to be protected from online poker? There are between ten and fifteen million online poker players in this country and probably none of them want the government’s “protection.” Before Black Friday, there was an average of over fifty-thousand poker players online every hour of every day. The government does not seem to care that online poker is a favorite pastime for many players who can not conveniently get to public poker facilities (because of their location, age, disabilities, lack of transportation, for example). I was recently dropping off some magazines at a retirement home (where my mother-in-law lived before she died), and was greeted by several sad faces of older men who sorely missed their nightly online poker games.

I know first hand that many members of Congress and even the Supreme Court frequently play poker. I have heard that President Obama also likes to play poker. So why try to prohibit online poker when poker is clearly an accepted American tradition? Wouldn’t it be much wiser to tax it and benefit ( as the government did with liquor)? And in these hard financial times, our treasury certainly needs the money.

If you stop and think about the whole big picture, this situation involving online poker versus live poker is even more clear than the liquor Prohibition situation. So let’s not pass any more foolish laws that will soon be repealed by popular demand. The U.S. Supreme Court justices, who frequently play poker, are not about to decide that online poker is illegal gambling. And perhaps if someone mentions this to President Obama, maybe he too would help? Did we say that there are ten to fifteen million online poker players in this country? ♠