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Not long ago, legislation to legalize online poker seemed a good bet to pass Congress. But the retirement of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., last year has left online poker players without a key Senate GOP ally and a card short of a winning hand.
Since the federal government largely shut down the Internet poker industry in April 2011, poker players and the casino industry have been lobbying furiously for the legalization and regulation of the online game at the federal level. Those efforts have resulted in the introduction of several pieces of legislation, including a high-profile effort last year from Kyl and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
For a time, there was even talk of attaching the Reid-Kyl bill to an omnibus spending package, but House Republicans balked at its inclusion. Reid, whose state is home to several large gaming companies, has since soured considerably on the prospects for federal poker legislation, telling the Las Vegas Sun recently that heís pessimistic about anything happening in the near future.
Supporters of legalizing online poker agree that Kylís departure has left a leadership void on the Hill that has yet to be filled.
ďThe biggest challenge is that there is no real non-Nevada Republican in the Senate that would take the lead,Ē said John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, which represents more than 1 million online poker players. ďA lot of people viewed Kyl as being a very reasonable counterpart in all this, someone who can credibly go to gambling opponents [in Congress] and say, ĎThis isnít about expansion of gambling, itís about regulation of activity thatís going on in unregulated fashion.íĒ
Complicating the effort for federal legislation is the fact that states are independently authorizing online gaming websites within their borders, following a shift in late 2011 in the Justice Departmentís interpretation of the 1961 Wire Act. That opened the door for states to offer online gaming to their residents. Nevada recently launched the first legal online poker site, with Delaware and New Jersey set to follow this year. Several other states, including Massachusetts, Illinois and California, are considering similar laws.
But poker players and the gaming industry would both prefer a federal solution. Poker sites rely on having a large pool of players and liquidity to support a range of games and betting levels, meaning smaller states likely couldnít support more than one or two providers. The gaming industry also would prefer federal oversight for the sake of consistency, and to avoid a patchwork quilt of various state rules to comply with.