Poker players face a hand of Digital Hold ‘Em

Online players bet on changing laws

MCT Campus WASHINGTON — In the evenings, Don Signore used to go to the local bar to play a few hands of poker. It was the kind of poker gathering where fathers sometimes brought their young daughters, and nobody played for money.

The night of cards with his new friends was a perfect distraction after his wife died two years ago, said Signore, who runs a Chicago catering business. “They take it very seriously. It’s about learning the game. It’s about becoming better,” he said.

But this month, the Illinois Liquor Control Commission shut down Signore’s league because under state law, an establishment with a liquor license couldn’t host poker, which the agency considered to be a game of chance and therefore illegal, even though Signore said his group didn’t play for money.

That frustration was enough that Signore came to Washington for this week’s Poker Players Alliance’s “fly-in” on Capitol Hill, where other like-minded poker aficionados lobbied lawmakers to ease federal restrictions on online poker playing. Signore, winner of a $50 gift certificate from his poker-playing days, stood in the same room as the high-stakes professionals, who have earned millions playing in Las Vegas, as well as such far-flung places as South Korea and Spain.

The alliance is trying to convince Congress to change the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which they say unfairly cracks down on online poker.

“It’s outrageous telling the American people what they can and cannot do in the privacy of their own homes on their own computers,” said Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., whose district includes Las Vegas. “If somebody wants to play, if somebody wants to bet online, God bless them. This is America. They have every right to do it.”

According to the law, banks must monitor and stop their customers’ cash transfers to unlawful online gaming sites. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., a supporter of the law, said it is necessary because it’s impossible for the federal government to regulate the Internet, like the state of Nevada does Las Vegas casinos.

“There’s a strong concern that comes from the problems of gambling. There’s no way to regulate it. You can’t keep minors from participating,” Goodlatte said. “All of these companies are based offshore, so they’re not subject to U.S. regulation.”

But Radley Balko, a senior editor at Reason magazine, told the alliance’s gathering that the law will only put a “small dent” in the online poker industry.

“What it is going to do is push it underground, and it’s going to make it more difficult for people to find legitimate sites they can access from the United States,” Balko said.

Instead, some poker players and lawmakers said they favor a proposal by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., to license and regulate the online gambling industry, which they contend could generate $2 billion to $3 billion in new federal revenue.