‚Äú‚Ä¶that‚Äôs what gets me up in the morning, going out and stopping this.‚Äù ‚Äì Michael Bolcerek, President of the Poker Player‚Äôs Alliance, regarding the latest US legislation to ban online poker
Two weeks ago,
Along with Chris ‚ÄúJesus‚Äù Ferguson, Howard Lederer, and Greg Raymer, Bolcerek began laying the foundation of a grassroots effort to keep online poker legal for us all.
In a series of emails and phone calls, Wicked Chops Poker discussed with Bolcerek, an avid poker player for the past five years, what the PPA is doing to keep online poker legal, and why we should all be concerned about Congress‚Äôs latest legislation.
Chops: First, what is some of your professional background?
Chops: How‚Äôd you get hooked up with the PPA?
Bolcerek: I was introduced to the PPA by a friend from a weekly home poker game. The PPA was looking for someone with a track record of running small businesses and making them successful. My friend told me to submit a resume, so I submitted one to the [PPA Board of Directors] and they gave me a call back.
I‚Äôve been in the role since February, and I‚Äôm loving it. We‚Äôre building good momentum and a strong membership base. We‚Äôre getting our voice heard.
But still, we‚Äôve gotta be more even aggressive on the issues. If not, you know, things will happen on Capitol Hill that most people won’t even know about. Howard [Lederer] summed it up when he said at our Washington panel discussion, ‚ÄúOne day we‚Äôll wake up and it‚Äôll be a like bad hangover. We‚Äôll wake up and find out that we can‚Äôt play online poker anymore.‚Äù
Chops: To me, I think there are three major issues that should hold the most weight with Congress…
…We can address them one-by-one. First, the overwhelming majority of Americans want online poker to be legal. I know you have used a 74% figure from your survey before, and the Wall Street Journal ran an online poll that received 85% support. If nothing else, legislators listen to their constituents, making these figures very relevant.
Bolcerek: We commissioned an independent non-Internet poll of US adults and found that 74% oppose a ban on Internet poker. Although we were extremely happy with the results of the WSJ poll, we felt a more scientific poll on Americans’ attitudes toward internet poker and the Government’s efforts to ban the game we love would have more impact. We were pleased by the results, but unfortunately this legislation continues to move forward despite such widespread opposition from Americans.
Chops: Second, there‚Äôs this hypocrisy issue. You and the PPA have done a great job pointing this out. If the Government is going to allow games of significantly greater chance to be legal, then how can it make online poker illegal? They‚Äôre sending a mixed message. Take Senator Jon Kyl’s state, Arizona. Kyl (recently named one of Time Magazine‚Äôs 10 best Senators) has introduced legislation to ban online gaming, yet his state profits wildly from a lottery.
Bolcerek: Thanks for raising this issue. We believe it is important for poker players to understand that they are being unfairly discriminated against in these bills. If carve-outs are provided in the legislation with no discussion of why certain games are legalized and other games prohibited, then it is hypocritical to call it a prohibition bill‚Äîit is closer to industrial policy regulation. We feel that in poker, which is a non-banked game, and a game that through mathematics, calculation of your competitors’ betting strategy, and your own betting strategy, you have a direct influence on your own success. We call it a skill game, but actually it is a performance game, which clearly differentiates it from other forms of gambling, where you have no direct ability to influence the result. Accordingly, Congress should strike all carve-outs, or provide one for poker, a skill game.
Chops: Third, lastly, and most importantly, the Government is losing out on some serious revenue by not regulating and taxing this. Every major site operator wants online poker regulated and taxed by the Government. We‚Äôre talking billions in lost revenue‚Ä¶
Bolcerek: We fully support a "regulate and tax" strategy. This would allow US companies to compete for business in the online poker industry, keeping that revenue on-shore and creating jobs for Americans. Americans would be happier to play on US online tables that are regulated by the Federal government, and have access to US courts. Additionally, we believe that if the government regulated and taxed online poker instead of banning it, a portion of the revenue raised could be put toward education and treatment of problem gambling, whether an individual‚Äôs problems stem from internet gambling, or a brick and mortar casino. We are looking into the potential tax revenues available through such an approach.
Chops: In a recent ESPN Poker Club article by Darren Rovell, he says two things were clear from the recent Congressional committee review of Rep. Goodlatte‚Äôs (R-VA) Internet Gambling Prohibition Act: 1) Representatives are divided on issues such as prosecution vs. taxation, and 2) even if prosecution is ultimately chosen, any laws created by the act might not be enforceable. What are your thoughts?
Bolcerek: The issue of prosecution vs. taxation seems to fall on party lines. Obviously, we think regulation and taxation of the online industry is the way to go. We do not want a scenario where the federal government starts going after the individual poker player who enjoys the game online. While it may not happen this year or even next year the PPA is moving the needle so that someone in Congress will introduce a bill that protects the poker player and regulates the online game in the U.S. The bills being debated today are essentially old fashion ‚Äúnanny-state‚Äù prohibitions. Goodlatte‚Äôs bill is an out-and-out ban.
Also, I don‚Äôt think [the Goodlatte bill] will be effective. It‚Äôs a needless intrusion into personal liberties. As an adult, you have the right to spend your money however you want. If [poker] is legal in casinos, why not online?
If [the Government] is going to provide a carve-out for horseracing or state lotteries, then how can a skill game like poker not be legal? Online poker is also more credible than those other games. All of the major online sites have sophisticated technologies in place to keep illegal or fraudulent activities away from the game. For example, on an online poker site, if you think collusion amongst other players at your table has taken place, you can ask the site to run algorithms to show whether there was in fact collusion. In that case, they have the ability to lock the account of the colluder and send funds back to people at the tables. And interestingly, this kind of accountability is only available for the online game. Brick and mortar casinos are unable to track every hand played at every table.
Online poker is an incredibly fair game. There are misconceptions by Congressmen that these are all fly-by-night casino dot-coms, when that couldn‚Äôt be farther from the case. Many of the leading online poker sites are public corporations, traded on the London Stock Exchange. They are required to follow auditing and accounting procedures set forth by the United Kingdom. Additionally, these poker Web sites have employed state-of-the-art age verification technology to prevent children from gambling on the Internet.
There‚Äôs also a danger with the Goodlatte bill with regard to its ISP provisions. The Goodlatte bill would force ISPs to block all gambling related content so even those people who play on the .net or ‚Äúplay money‚Äù sites would be unable to play the game online. The blocking provisions in both the Goodlatte (at left) and the Leach (R-IA) bills are censorship of the Internet, plain and simple.
Another unsettling fact is that these bills either have no funds allocated for enforcement or a laughable amount. Currently, there are only six FBI agents assigned to Internet gambling. If the FBI had to fully engage to shut down the $15 billion online gambling business, it would take dozens of more agents and millions in resources. Do the American people want the federal government diverting manpower and resources from protecting the homeland to chasing online poker players? So if you‚Äôre gonna take away our rights, at least be honest about how much its gonna cost to enforce this. Don‚Äôt leave it unfunded; put a dollar amount to it and justify the expense to the American taxpayer.
This is a major issue with banks too, not just ISPs. Banks have no liability on fund transfers. The liability is if they don‚Äôt block the transaction. The Government will essentially be the ‚Äúuber-lords‚Äù of financial blocking.
With the Goodlatte bill, small banks will have [to bear] a major financial burden. The community banks are up in arms about this. They don‚Äôt have the type of funds to buy software to block these transactions or physically examine each and every one of their customer’s checks. It‚Äôs going to be very expensive for banks and ISPs.
Chops: Goodlatte‚Äôs bill seeks clarification of the Wire Act of 1961, which prohibits betting over state lines by telephone. However, the legality of Internet poker was already upheld in a February 2001 ruling in the United States District Court in Louisiana by Judge Stanwood Duval when he ruled that the Wire Act "does not prohibit Internet gambling.‚Äù So do you think the legality of online poker is more an issue for legislators or the courts?
Bolcerek: Well, the courts already decided that the Wire act did not apply. So online poker must be legal because clearly the Wire Act does not apply to poker. It only applies to sports betting. But Goodlatte‚Äôs bill does have over 130 co-sponsors to it, even though most of those don‚Äôt know why they co-sponsored it. Essentially, this bill started off as a ‚ÄúGet Jack Abramoff bill‚Äù originally. Every second word out of Goodlatte‚Äôs mouth when he introduced this bill was ‚ÄúJack Abramoff.‚Äù This bill is an extension of the wire act and unfortunately it happens to target poker players.
Editor‚Äôs Note: Regarding Jack Abramoff, according to the PPA Web site, ‚ÄúIn permitting certain online forms of gambling, Kyl, Leach, and Goodlatte are all pursuing an ironic twist of which, only politicians are capable. They claim that passing such policy would signal that Congress is "purging itself" of the influence of infamous lobbyist Jack Abramoff, however, more shrewd observers have noted the opposite. When Mr. Abramoff scuttled an attempt to ban online gambling in 2000, his client was eLottery, and Mr. Abramoff¬¥s goal was to legalize online lotteries by attaining special legal protections for them in the bill. Six years and one giant scandal later, Jack Abramoff would receive exactly what he set out to achieve.‚Äù
Chops: Since you mention Jack Abramoff, how much resources, either financial or human capital, have major online sites put into the lobbying effort against the banning of online poker?
Bolcerek: Since they‚Äôre off-shore entities, there is a disconnect on how the American political process works. That‚Äôs part of the problem. The IGC (Interactive Gaming Council) is their lobbying organization and they have not been as aggressive as they should be. I wish they would be more so. Hopefully as this legislation continues to move along, they‚Äôll increase their efforts. The Poker Players Alliance receives its funding directly from our members. We are over 20,000 strong today and I hope to be at 100,000 members by next year. We need members so that we can broaden our constituency in Congress and have the ability to continue to fight against these bills.
Bolcerek: I know this isn‚Äôt the most popular stance, but parents need to take a more active role in this. If a parent is concerned they should purchase software programs, available right now, that allow families to filter their Internet content. And kids are not a money making entity for online poker sites. It‚Äôs un-economic for poker sites to allow children to gamble. For example, when a parent discovers that their kid has used a credit card to deposit funds, the sites eventually lose that money. Since the money is distributed to other players at the table, once a parent charges that money back, the sites lose the money. Sites also have safeguards in place to prevent this from happening. They don‚Äôt want kids gambling either.
Chops: Do you think that your messaging resonated with Capitol Hill members?
Bolcerek: They don‚Äôt get it yet. They heard it. They are digesting our message. And hopefully they will start thinking of alternative solutions that are available, like in the UK. We had fruitful discussions but there are political forces at work that mitigate a good argument. We‚Äôll continue to push forward on policy issues, but whether they make a decision on policy or politics are two separate things on Capital Hill. But this issue is not going away. We‚Äôll continue to be on Capitol Hill. We‚Äôve sent over 10,000 letters to Capitol Hill. We‚Äôve partnered with Card Player magazine to get the word out.
Chops: What efforts have you made to get the message to Congressional staffers. I‚Äôd think that staffers, who ultimately end up writing much of the policy, would be a large poker playing group‚Ä¶.
Bolcerek: We try to send info to staffers. In Washington two weeks ago, we had a cocktail party for staffers in the Longworth Cafeteria. They got to meet poker players and get their pictures taken with them. 250 people attended, included some Congressmen! A lot of these guys are poker players.
Chops: I can see the banning of online poker becoming the new prohibition. The vast majority of people never wanted alcohol banned, but they banned it, and it cost law enforcement all sorts of dollars and resources to enforce it, with the Government eventually only making it legal again.
Bolcerek: Have you seen
Chops: No, not yet.
Bolcerek: It hits on this message. The ad reads, ‚Äú
But that‚Äôs what gets me up in the morning, going out and stopping this.
Chops: Thanks Michael. To all of our readers, Congress is moving forward with these bills, and we highly encourage you to visit the PPA Web site and sign up for their cause. Also, contact your Congressional and Senate representatives and voice your opposition to these bills. Like Lederer said, you don‚Äôt want to wake up one morning and find out that you suddenly can‚Äôt play online poker anymore.