The Monitor's View

Legalize betting for online poker?

A bill in Congress to allow betting for online poker is based on the notion that poker is mainly a game of skill. Fat chance.

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A 2006 law effectively blocks all types of Internet gambling by Americans, largely to prevent a rise in gambling addiction that online betting can easily lead to. Strong attempts to overturn the law have so far failed. Now a bill in Congress aims to open a crack in that wall. It would legalize only one type: online poker.

What’s the key argument for letting Americans bet on their favorite card game?

Poker is predominately a game of skill, proponents say, in which players compete with each other, not the house. Chance is only a distant factor – perhaps 12 percent over many hands, according to one study – at least for those considered skilled.

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The bill’s advocates say players may get cards by a random deal, but the best of them are able to beat the inherent odds by using math, bluffing and reading their opponents, betting astutely, and knowing when to fold. They equate the game with Scrabble in that age-old debate over skill versus chance in many games.

The Justice Department, at least for now, isn’t buying it. In April, it indicted three giant poker websites in other countries under the 2006 law. (Poker itself is legal; it is the money side that isn’t.)

In state courts, meanwhile, many judges have ruled that poker involves too much chance to not be seen as gambling. That trend in rulings may change, however, with an aggressive push by the million-member-strong Poker Players Alliance to make betting on the game legal. And many new statistical studies try to show how, over many hands of play, skill can dominate the game.

Big money is involved in this effort. Many states, hungry for revenue, want a federal law allowing it. One estimate is that states could bring in $3 billion.

Allowing online poker could pave the way for full online gambling. This makes it important for lawmakers and court judges to keep asking: What is chance, really?

The word “luck” is thrown around all too easily in daily life, as if humans are regular victims of random forces. It is treated as a demigod, sometimes bad, sometimes good. The word “accident,” too, is seen as either good (“I found it by accident”) or bad (“I had an accident”).

As in poker, a “player” in everyday life tries to find patterns, laws, clues, or ideas that underlie reality in order to minimize “chance.” Some people turn to science, many to religion, for help in trying to gain control over what can seem like fluky events.

For poker players, “skill” is often seen after multiple hands, sometimes hundreds. One game alone can lead to a quite variable result. Players don’t start out on an equal footing. A turn of one card can beat the hand of a pro.

There is a large churn of winners in the Top 10 poker players in the United States, a sign that skill is still strongly up against the play of the cards.

For a small percentage of young people, especially college men, online poker can be particularly addictive. They lose control of their lives, a sure sign that poker is a form of gambling.

Poker’s popularity has boomed over the past decade and, with it, a growing acceptance that betting is a natural part of it.

For sure, poker takes more skill than say, rolling dice or roulette – and certainly a state lottery. But that doesn’t mean online poker betting won’t contribute to gambling addiction. And allowing betting on the game certainly won’t help persuade people that they can have dominion over “chance.”

The sponsors of this bill should just fold.

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