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Building a Better Debate

The debate over online poker in the U.S.

Building a Better Debate

We all remember when we were kids. You wanted to do something that all your friends were doing. But your mother disagreed. And you knew exactly what she’d say if you said, “But Mom, everyone’s doing it!”

You can still hear the answer, can’t you? “If everyone were jumping off a cliff, would you do that too?”

Yes, it was a futile exercise because the argument was tainted.

And that’s what’s happening today in the discussions being held to legalize online gaming (or at least online poker) in the United States.

Yes, there certainly is validity to the argument that “everyone is doing it.” There are millions of Americans who enjoyed a few hands of poker before the Department of Justice closed down the three most popular poker websites. And now that those sites are gone, many of those players are migrating to other, equally shady online sites operating in the U.S. Those who use this argument are certainly correct in contending that you can’t stop it, so why not control it?

But you could possibly say the same thing about drugs. While not “everybody” is doing it, there are quite a few people who are. So what’s to stop online gaming opponents from making that comparison? And we don’t want to be on the wrong side of that equation.

No, the proponents of online gaming have a long way to go before they reach anything even close to a consensus. At last month’s iGaming North America conference in Las Vegas, everyone agreed that some kind of unanimity was necessary before asking the government to legalize online gaming of any sort.

The problem is, every company in every segment of the land-based and online gaming industries has been positioning itself for profitability at the moment of legalization. As Betfair’s Laurie Itkin said at the conference, “We haven’t earned that right,” because we haven’t even taken the first step of everyone getting on the same page.

Itkin and many others argued that the industry needs to get behind a process for legalization. Whether that means online poker alone or giving U.S. land-based casinos a leg up at the start, most proponents believe that you’ve got to get your foot in the door and later it will open wider.

We can surely see that effect with the growth of land-based gaming over the years. How many states legalized VLTs first, then slot machines, then table games and finally full-blown gaming? The same thing will happen with online gaming if we allow it to occur.

And let’s stop fighting about federal vs. state legalization! Sure, a federal bill is preferable, but fighting state legalization is counter-productive and doesn’t serve the cause at all.

In fact, state legalization could cause the feds to act.

But the argument that everyone is doing it just doesn’t hold water. For a great blueprint to legalize online gaming, check out AGA President Frank Fahrenkopf’s column. While you can’t ignore the “everyone is doing it” argument, Fahrenkopf attacks legalization by stressing the positives.

And one of those positives is keeping out the dirty companies—ones that have proven they don’t respect U.S. laws. While none of us applauded the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, it did become law, with clear consequences. Money laundering and bank fraud are serious charges, which the owners of those poker sites have discovered.

Some players and companies contend that the government’s actions mean that it believes playing online poker is illegal. That is clearly not the case. What the government said is that these poker websites were violating established U.S. law, outlined by UIGEA and other statutes, and that must stop.

But the only way to stop it on a large-scale basis is to legalize, regulate and tax online gaming. So let’s make this debate about the positive attributes of online gaming—jobs, tax revenues, marketing vehicles, synergy with land-based casinos and more—and leave the “dog ate my homework” arguments behind.

Roger Gros is publisher of Global Gaming Business, the industry's leading gaming trade publication, and all its related publications. Prior to joining Global Gaming Business, Gros was president of Inlet Communications, an independent consulting firm. He was vice president of Casino Journal Publishing Group from 1984-2000, and held virtually every editorial title during his tenure. Gros was editor of Casino Journal, the National Gaming Summary and the Atlantic City Insider, and was the founding editor of Casino Player magazine. He was a co-founder of the American Gaming Summit and the Southern Gaming Summit conferences and trade shows. He is the author of the best-selling book, How to Win at Casino Gambling (Carlton Books, 1995), now in its fourth edition. Gros was named "Businessman of the Year" for 1998 by the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce, and received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Gaming Association in 2012.

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