Poker Fans Push Online Gambling

WASHINGTON -- Three professional poker players raised the stakes in a debate over Internet gambling Tuesday, calling on Congress to reject three bills that attempt to stop U.S. residents from playing online poker.

Poker players Howard Lederer, Chris Ferguson, and Greg Raymer, joining the Poker Players Alliance at a press conference, criticized the three bills for requiring banks to monitor their customers' transactions in an attempt to stop them from using overseas gambling sites. The players questioned why poker, legal in U.S. casinos, should be illegal online.

In addition, a bill sponsored by Representative Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, would "censor" the Internet by allowing courts to order ISPs to shut down access to offshore gambling sites, said Michael Bolcerek, president of the Poker Players Alliance. Bolcerek compared Goodlatte's bill to the Chinese government's attempts to block Internet content it doesn't like.

"Monitoring what American citizens do in their own homes, with their own money and in their own time just isn't the federal government's responsibility," added Radley Balko, policy analyst for the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute. "The government is not our babysitter."

Raymer, who won the World Series of Poker in 2004 after qualifying for the tournament online, said Goodlatte's bill would require banks and ISPs to intrude on U.S. residents' privacy. "I don't want my ISP to be monitoring where I go on the Internet," he said.

Proposal Defended

Goodlatte disputed that his bill would allow censorship, saying it would simply give states more tools to enforce existing laws against most forms of online gambling. So far, lawmakers have had little success stopping U.S. residents from playing poker and other games at offshore sites. Online gambling is estimated to be a $12 billion business, about half coming from U.S. residents.

"This is in no way censorship," Goodlatte said. "Gambling has always been a matter that's been regulated by the states."

At a Wednesday hearing, the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee will debate Goodlatte's Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. An Internet gambling bill sponsored by Representative Jim Leach, an Iowa Republican, was approved by the House Financial Services Committee March 15. The third bill is sponsored by Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican.

The Poker Players Alliance called on Congress to legalize online poker, saying that would allow the government to regulate and tax the game. It criticized the bills for allowing some forms of online gambling, such as horse racing bets and state lottery sales, while banning games such as poker. The bills are "blatantly hypocritical," Balko said.

But Goodlatte's bill doesn't provide any "carve outs" for horse racing or other gambling, the lawmaker said. There's some disagreement over existing federal laws governing horse racing bets, but "every other form of gambling is treated the same way" in his bill, Goodlatte said.

Poll Finds Support

The Poker Players Alliance, which represents 20,000 players, found that 74 percent of respondents in a recent survey said they disagreed with government efforts to prevent U.S. residents from playing poker online. The survey polled more than 950 U.S. residents.

The three poker players, made famous by recent television coverage of tournaments, called poker an American game that requires more skill that most forms of gambling.

"[Poker] brings incredibly diverse groups of people together," said Ferguson, wearing his trademark black cowboy hat. "Once you sit down at that table, you're all equal."

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