Internet Poker Fans Are Playing Politics at Party Conventions - Monday 1st of September 2008

U.S. poker players have anted up for another high-stakes game -- lobbying.

Trying to overturn a 2006 U.S. ban on online poker, gamblers have started a lobbying group, established a political action committee, and promoted their effort to politicians by holding poker tournaments at the Republican and Democratic nominating conventions.

``Up until this point, the minority of the public that is anti-gambling has yelled louder, professional poker player Andy Bloch said. ``Were trying to change that.

The Poker Players Alliance, which claims 1 million members, has invited lawmakers and celebrities to a charity tournament Sept. 3 in Minneapolis, across the Mississippi River from St. Paul, where Republicans are meeting to formally nominate John McCain for president.

Before President George W. Bush signed the Republican- backed gambling ban in October 2006, the U.S. accounted for about half the market on Internet gambling sites operated from countries where betting is legal. Inserted into unrelated port- security legislation by then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, the law forbids credit-card companies to process online-wagering transactions.

The ban hammered Internet gambling stocks in London; PartyGaming Plc fell 58 percent, and Sportingbet Plc plunged 64 percent, on the first trading day after Congress passed the measure. At the time, Gibraltar-based PartyGaming alone said it had 900,000 American players. PartyGaming and Sportingbet still trade for 80 percent less than their prices before Congress passed the ban.

Internet Gambling

House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank has sponsored legislation to allow and regulate online gambling, including poker. Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, said he expects the measure to pass next year in a Democratic-controlled Congress.

Frank, Bloch, and actor Ben Affleck were among almost 200 participants during last weeks Democratic National Convention at a tournament benefiting the Paralyzed Veterans of America.

The Washington-based lobbying group set up 20 tables with cards, chips and professional dealers in a second-floor room at Coors Field, home of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. Players got buttons reading: ``Reduce your carbon footprint. Play online poker.

`Larger Political Force

``Were trying to make this a larger political force, said Toby Moffett, a lobbyist and former Connecticut Democratic congressman who represents the poker group and urged it to sponsor the convention events. ``It shows our supporters were not going away.

Gamblers say the law violates individual rights. ``Its a bad idea for legislators to tell people what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes, said poker pro Chris ``Jesus Ferguson during a lobbying trip to Washington last fall.

Online poker also is a potential source of tax revenue. ``Were facing this really horrific financial situation, said Annie Duke, another poker pro.

The poker players face opposition from other political forces, including Christian conservatives.

``You cant make public policy out of a group of individuals desires, said Chad Hills, an analyst for gambling research and policy at Focus on the Family, the Colorado Springs-based group founded by Dr. James Dobson. ``You have to say, `How is this impacting our culture? How is this impacting our children?

Alfonse DAmato

The poker alliance, headed by former New York Republican Senator Alfonse DAmato, spent $729,750 on lobbying during the first half of 2008, after spending $900,000 in all of 2007. Its political action committee, PokerPAC, began April 11 and raised $43,226 through Aug. 12.

In the presidential race, the Republican platform supports the ban on Internet gambling.

Hills, saying the Internet functions like the public library of previous generations, said gambling shouldnt be allowed. ``Some activities are not appropriate in the public library, Hills said. ``This is one of those things.

The poker players may benefit from growing celebrity, as popular televised contests make stars of professionals like Bloch, Ferguson, Duke, and Dukes brother Howard Lederer.

``People sitting in their homes, watching top professionals playing a game of skill, allows us to have this conversation, Lederer said. ``If I can use my celebrity to help further the cause I truly believe in, I will do it.

Bloch and Lederer are among those whove given the maximum individual contribution, $5,000, to PokerPAC. ``We realized we had to have a voice in Congress, Bloch said.

``It always helps when you have someone whos very well known, said Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat and one of 48 co-sponsors of Franks bill. ``When Im at home, it always give me a thrill when someone approaches me and says, `I read about what youre doing on Internet poker. That tells me how effective this cause has become.

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