In the poker news section at the Card Player web site I found this story about a suggestion submitted to the Barack Obama transition team, which has apparently become one of the most popular ideas for the team's consideration. Here's what the submission says:
Boost America's Economy with Legal Online Poker
Let online poker players in the United States play legally and without fear
of prosecution. Reform the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act to exempt
poker, a game of skill, from the law. Boost the economy by letting American
companies and Ameican (sic) players make money and pay taxes instead of sending
online poker businesses offshore. Protect online poker players by regulating the
industry to ensure that no one is ever cheated.
Obviously I am in support of online poker being legal. Still, it's hard to imagine how I could have more disagreements with such a short request. Let me list them.
1. It's not at all clear to me that changing anything about the UIGEA would "boost America's economy." It's possible that poker--both live and online--could vanish entirely without materially affecting the economy as a whole. Assuming that the great majority of poker money is recreational, it might simply get shifted to other entertainment sources instead.
2. The "legally without fear of prosecution" line implies that (1) playing onling poker is currently illegal and (2) there is fear of prosecution now. Well, I don't have any! The only people who fear prosecution for playing poker online are those who haven't done more than about three seconds of research into the matter. It is not illegal to play poker on any web site. (I'm talking about federal law here. At least one state--Washington--has made participation in Internet gaming a felony, though even there I have not heard of any prosecutions.)
3. I think it's a huge mistake to suggest "reform" of the UIGEA to treat poker differently from other online gaming. This is a question of personal liberty. I happen not to be interested in playing blackjack either live or online, but why should the guy who wants to play blackjack be prevented from doing so any more than I am kept from playing poker?
My other major hobby is competitive handgun shooting. I have for many years watched closely the political machinations surrounding the issue of gun control. Those who want more restrictions on gun ownership always try to fragment their opposition by selecting specific targets. For example, they'll try to pass bans on .50 caliber or larger rifles, because only a small fraction of gun owners have them, so there is less opposition than if they went after ordinary hunting rifles. Or they'll try to make illegal small or low-end handguns, knowing that for the most part only the poorest, least-connected people choose those weapons, and that's a segment of the population that doesn't get much sympathy or put up much of a political fight. In this way, they chip away at gun ownership little by little. Fortunately, organizations such as the NRA and Gun Owners of America and the Second Amendment Foundation recognize the "divide and conquer" approach and oppose all such piecemeal efforts of the gun control fanatics.
The same principles apply here. When we ask for specific exemptions for our preferred game, it's like taking other people that share our lifeboat and throwing them overboard to the sharks.
You've heard the lines that start, "In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist." (See here for history.) That's the situation we have here. It's folly to consider online poker some sort of divine right of man, but be willing to toss blackjack and roulette to the political wolves. We need to stand together on this. It is just as wrong for do-gooders in Washington, D.C., to tell you that you can't play blackjack on your home computer as it is for them to tell you that you can't play poker. It is illogical, morally wrong, and politically foolish, in my opinion, to carve poker out from the rest of online gaming. As Americans we either have the right to engage in private activities with our own time and money that do not hurt others, or we do not. It is short-sighted to plead for special protection for only one such specific pursuit while letting all of the others be taken away.
If we fight for online poker but not other online gaming, it is, in effect, acknowledging that the feds have legitimate reason to criminalize (or at least make difficult) some forms of online gambling, and you are then reduced to arguments about why poker should be made an exception. I recognize no general right or power on the part of the feds to restrict my activities that hurt nobody else. I can't understand why the writer of this proposal implicitly cedes such a power to the government, which it does not rightfully have.
Rather than fighting the entire idea of a nanny-state government, the writer is effectively agreeing to have a nanny, and just begging the nanny to let him keep one particular toy. The whole approach is incredibly wrong-headed.
4. There is a point about taxes being not paid in the U.S. by companies that are forced to locate offshore. But when a point is made about American players not paying taxes, we have different problems. All income is taxable. That includes poker income, even that which comes from playing online at foreign-based sites. Now, it's probably true that not all citizens accurately report all of their poker income. But what is the evidence that that would change even if the UIGEA were repealed or altered? Many people are dishonest in their taxes when they can get away with it, whether that money comes from gambling, tips, contract work, or whatever else. Is the writer here proposing that the government be allowed to monitor all cash in and out of every online gaming site to better prevent tax cheating? If so, I think he is inviting a guest to the party that he will quickly regret having let in.
5. The writer seems to blithely assume that federal regulation of online poker will "ensure that no one is ever cheated." That is sheer idiocy. If the writer actually believes that this will be the result, his glasses are too rose-colored for me or anyone else to save him. Take the securities industry, for example, which is heavily regulated. Anyone hear of Bernard Madoff? Ivan Boesky? Enron? Where is the evidence for such a grandiose claim that cheating will be eradicated? What precedent can the writer cite for an industry that was previously unregulated and full of cheating, then federally regulated and the cheating vanished? Frankly, anybody who thinks that federal regulation will make it impossible for anyone participating in the regulated field to ever get cheated is too stupid to be taken seriously. I don't even know that federal regulation would substantially reduce the possibility of cheating at online poker, let alone make it disappear entirely.
Is this proposal to the Obama transition team really the best that we can come up with in regard to poker? Lordy, I hope not, or we're in serious trouble.
The print shown above is Martin Luther nailing his "95 Theses" to the door of the Wittenberg church, as engraved by Gustav König (1808-1869). You can see the entire set of 48 engravings of Luther's life here (which is where I found them), or look at the entire original book (as preserved by the Google Book project) here.