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Poker Players All-In on Joe Barton Bill

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo

One year after the Department of Justice cut off U.S. access to the three biggest online poker sites, players are sending a message to Congress: We will not fold.

The nonprofit Poker Players Alliance last week launched a grass-roots advocacy campaign timed to coincide with the first anniversary of “Black Friday,” when federal agents on April 15, 2011, seized the Internet addresses of PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker and charged the owners with bank fraud and money laundering.

On its website, the alliance declares “The players will never fold” and urges support for a bill introduced by Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) that creates a federal framework for regulating online gaming.

“It is more important than ever to have a national standard for everyone in every state that wishes to allow their players to play for money on the Internet,” Barton said in an introductory video.

But creating that framework could prove difficult.

After a recent Justice Department opinion clarified that the federal law under which the poker site owners were charged applies only to sports wagering and not poker, states moved to create regulations that allow competition within their borders. That has left a patchwork of rules, none of which facilitate poker playing across state lines.

“It was a pretty important reversal of opinion, and it opened the doors for states to start saying, ‘Since the federal government doesn’t have a problem with this, we’re going to do it on our own,’” Poker Players Alliance Executive Director John Pappas said of the decision.

“There needs to be some sort of national standard,” he said.

The legislation Barton introduced last June would separate the regulation of poker from other forms of online gaming, establish a framework to license poker websites and allow states to opt in or out of participating.

Proponents hope a Congressional push to regulate the game will bring a portion of the $30 billion generated annually by online gaming back into the United States and provide the estimated 10 million to 15 million Americans who continue to play poker on 2,000 unregulated, offshore sites with some sort of consumer protection.

More than $150 million of players’ money remains frozen after the crackdown on online poker sites. Thousands of players have moved to Mexico, Europe and elsewhere so they can continue playing online.

Barton’s bill has the backing of 27 co-sponsors but is largely stalled in the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security. An earlier bill introduced by Rep. John Campbell (R-Calif.) that gained 29 co-sponsors is also before that subcommittee. Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) are working on similar legislation, according to sources familiar with the proposal, though neither lawmaker’s office wold comment on the status of the effort.

The Poker Players Alliance, which claims 1.2 million members, spent $1.4 million lobbying the federal government on the Barton bill and other issues last year. Its PokerPAC doled out about $175,000 to federal candidates during the 2010 election cycle, according to OpenSecrets.org.

The American Gaming Association, which represents commercial casino operators, spent $2.2 million lobbying the federal government in 2011. Though the association was officially neutral on online gaming legislation, it conducted more than 200 private meetings with at least 125 lawmakers and their staffers and convened a working group to “ratify a position in favor of federal legislation that calls for a legal, licensed and regulated U.S. online poker market,” according to its annual report.

“What we believe should happen is that there should be a federal piece of legislation that also preserves states’ rights,” association CEO Frank Fahrenkopf said.

Several of the association’s member companies, including MGM and Caesar’s, also established a grass-roots organization called Fair Play USA last August that brings nontraditional voices — local law enforcement, policy experts and consumer advocates — into the debate.

Gaming interests including the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and the American Greyhound Track Operators Association have retained lobbyists to work on poker issues. The National Indian Gaming Association and the Seminole Tribe of Florida have also retained Hill representatives to preserve their stakes. Americans for Tax Reform and the Christian Coalition of America are among the nongaming groups that have sent lobbyists to Capitol Hill.

Gus Voelzel, an online poker player and attorney in Austin, Texas, when the poker sites were shut down, has spent months emailing lawmakers to back federal regulation. In February, he moved to Playa del Carmen, Mexico, so he can access sites that remain restricted in the United States.

“Many European nations were able to complete the shutdown and restart the process in a matter of months, and yet here we are, nearly a year later, showing little to no sign of progress, ” Voelzel said. “I wonder how many Mother’s Days I’m going to miss while my representatives figure out the online poker issue.”

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