Poker Players Alliance Gives Poker Enthusiasts Voice to Oppose Congressional Legislation - Wednesday 5th of April 2006

By Aaron Todd

Approximately 70 million Americans from every segment of the population play poker. Recent legislation introduced on Capitol Hill, however, could affect the ability of the American public to play poker online, and poker players are starting to flex their collective muscle, joining together to form the Poker Players Alliance (PPA).

Formed less than a year ago, the PPA is already over 20,000 members strong. Michael Bolcerek, the President of the PPA Board of Directors, hopes to increase that number to over 100,000 by the end of the year.

"(Our membership) is the average Joe, from bankers and lawyers to mechanics. They are from Bakersfield, Calif., to Bangor, Maine," Bolcerek says. "The organization was originally formed because charitable gaming and offline home games had been under attack. Now Internet issues have come to the fore. We're online and offline players who feel strongly about playing poker in the venue of our choice."

In mid-March, the U.S. House Committee on Financial Services approved a bill penned by Rep. Jim Leach (R-Va.) that would prohibit the use of credit cards, checks, or electronic fund transfers to fund online gambling accounts.

"These offshore gambling sites are beyond the reach of American law," says Leach's Chief of Staff Greg Wierzynski. "This law will interpose a wall between the user and the gambling Web site."

Leach's plan seeks to vanquish the ability of the American public to gamble online by cutting off the money supply. Most banks and credit card companies, however, do not currently allow customers to make deposits at offshore gaming sites, thus the legislation would do very little to change the current landscape of online gaming.

In many cases, customers are free to make electronic transfers to offshore Web based accounts such as NETELLER or FirePay. Similar to PayPal, which is used mainly for online auction sites such as eBay, these online accounts exist almost exclusively for Internet gaming customers. These providers have grown at a rate similar to the Internet poker boom; NETELLER's gross revenue has jumped by 480 percent in the last two years. (PayPal, which did allow transfers to online gambling sites before it was acquired by eBay in October, 2002, was hit with a $10 million fine by the U.S. Department of Justice for allowing such transfers in July 2003.) Leach's bill does not prohibit banks and credit card companies from allowing deposits into these types electronic payment accounts.

"(Congress) has to get the banks and credit companies on their side because they are very powerful lobbying institutions," says I. Nelson Rose, Professor of Law at Whittier Law School and a leading authority on gambling law. "If the law is going to have any teeth, it will have to prohibit banks or ISPs from allowing players to transfer money to a gambling site or even to a site that allows transfers to gambling sites."

Some members of Congress have attempted to increase the bill's visibility by citing convicted Indian casino lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose interests were largely unrelated to online gaming, as a cause to pass the legislation. Others, including Leach, imply a connection between offshore gaming sites and funding for terrorism.

Those suggestions smack of political maneuvering to Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the senior Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee, who believes the bill is an interference in personal freedom.

"There is a combination of enduring Puritanism in America, along with a sense among liberals that gambling is tacky," Congressman Frank says. "They don't approve of it, so they want to ban people from doing it. It's totally inconsistent with the freedom of the Internet. Some people are going to spend too much money on gambling, and some people are going to spend too much money collecting coins on eBay. Why does the government have to get involved?"

There are certainly plenty of congressmen, however, who think that the government does have to get involved. Rep. Leach's bill (H.R. 4411) isn't the only congressional legislation in the works.

H.R. 4411 is matched in the Senate by a nearly identical bill introduced by Senators John Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Mark Pryor (R-Ark.), while another House bill, introduced by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) would amend the Wire Act to include more clear language regarding online gambling. Judicial interpretations of the Wire Act clearly state that sports bets are illegal, but the legality of other types of Internet wagers, including online poker, are not as clear.

"The bill's main objective is to clarify or expand the Wire Act to make it clear that it would cover all forms of illegal gambling," Rose says. "The focus has changed from trying to go after the operators directly to now try to go after the money, which is a much smarter move. However, there are entire industries being created to get around that."

Those industries won't need to be created, if the PPA has its way. The PPA gives individual poker players who are concerned about these measures several ways to voice their opposition. Individuals can send letters to their congressional representatives through the PPA's Web site.

"They can use our language or they can create a customized letter," Bolcerek says. "The combination of the single voice of the Poker Players Alliance and the individual voices of our membership gives us a great deal of weight. We believe that the voice of the individual is more important than the politics of the moment."

For more information about the PPA, visit the organization's Web site at www.pokerplayersalliance.com.

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