Misdeal on Internet poker gambling

A federal court ruling that poker is mainly a game of skill and thus not gambling could steer Congress down the wrong path of approving Internet gaming.

Ann Hermes/Christian Science Monitor
Photo illustration of an online gambler visiting a Internet power website.

Many lawmakers in Washington and a few states are eager to approve Internet gambling. But to make it politically palatable, they are first pushing only for online poker. Why that card game and not, say, blackjack? Because, they claim, poker is mainly a game of skill.

Their argument received a boost Tuesday in a ruling by Brooklyn federal Judge Jack Weinstein. In overturning a conviction of a man who ran a poker den in a Staten Island warehouse, he found that poker is not a game of chance under the 1970 Illegal Gambling Businesses Act.

The decision needs to be appealed to higher courts as it is could easily be overturned. It argues against poker as a game of chance but then finds that states can still outlaw it as a form of gambling, as many do. It approves of sports betting – which often relies on skilled knowledge of players or teams – even though that is outlawed under federal law.

The ruling is also weak in presuming that a game must always be predominantly chance in nature to be called gambling. Even the most successful poker players often lose – and not for lack of skill. Placing a bet will always be just that – a bet.

Most of all, the ruling ignores the effects of opening the legislative floodgates for Internet gaming.

Congress outlawed Internet gambling in 2006, based on evidence in other countries that it allows easier, more anonymous accessibility to wagering than do casinos or lotteries. With the click of the mouse, a teenager at home could become a gambling addict, despite any promised safeguards.

Last year, the Obama administration gave a green light for states to allow Internet gambling for state residents only (a dubious technical feat). And now with this federal ruling, lawmakers on Capitol Hill might feel safer in approving Internet poker, especially as governments are eager for new revenue. (Online poker would be nearly a $10 billion business in the United States, by one estimate.)

Instead, Congress needs to tighten up the 1970 law and reaffirm the 2006 ban rather than buckle under to the million-member-strong Poker Players Alliance.

Why further feed the notion that “luck” determines one’s future and that random forces guide events? Government should be affirming the value of ideas and hard work, not a belief in the roll of the dice or the shuffle of a card deck.

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