Online Poker Showdown

Game’s legalization seen as imminent; measure likely would benefit Las Vegas

Alan Boston, a professional gambler who has lived in Las Vegas for more than two decades, prefers to play poker in casinos rather than on his computer. In his role as a featured pro with online giant Full Tilt Poker, however, he has come to embrace his status as an Internet poker personality.

While competing online in Texas hold ’em, Boston actively trades banter with his fellow players. The chat can range from strategy tips to which strain of marijuana his opponents are puffing as they play.

Online poker, viewed as illegal by the Justice Department but popular among Americans and rarely prosecuted, is again in play on Capitol Hill with Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., backing a bill that would legalize, regulate and tax it. As Boston suggests, opposition to the legislation comes primarily from socially conservative lawmakers and religious organizations that consider gambling immoral.

Although Boston is merely framing the debate as a matter of personal freedom, his commentary will surely elicit some wincing among the online gambling industry’s highly paid lobbyists in Washington.

That’s tough, Boston says. He is not a bureaucrat, nor is he a politician beholden to special interests. He is a sharp guy—Boston earned a degree in the biological basis of behavior at the University of Pennsylvania—with an opinion and a willingness to express it.

“We are headed for what the main battle is,” Boston says. “Any reasonable person on this planet, if you ask them about online poker, will say, ‘Well, who gives a fuck? Sure, go play poker.’ You’re not bothering anybody. You’re sitting in your house playing poker.

“The question is: Will politicians in America be able to get re-elected if they come out in favor of online poker? That really is the only question. It has nothing to do with whether it’s right or wrong.”

Despite its shady status, 12 million people in the United States played poker for money online last year, according to Michael Lipton, a Canadian gaming law expert who spoke at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas in November. American bettors have been estimated to account for more than half of the $16 billion worldwide online gambling market, $10 billion of which is from online poker.

“As long as the Democrats don’t fuck up, which they’re doing a very good job of doing, you’ll see online poker regulated in this country within two years,” Boston says. “If the Republicans get back in office, you won’t. The Republicans are more in tune with what the religious right wants.”

Elihu Feustel, an attorney and gaming consultant in Indiana, also estimates online poker will be legalized in the U.S. within two to three years. Feustel thinks Full Tilt and its online confederates would prefer to be regulated and taxed by the U.S., but said they could face formidable competition from the major American gaming companies.

“Online poker will be legalized at some point, but it won’t be because of Barney Frank,” Feustel says. “It will be because of the casinos that will want to control it. And I mean the big, brick-and-mortar casinos.”

Boston sees it as a win-win situation for Las Vegas.

“The legalization of online poker would help the Las Vegas poker rooms,” he says. “New people will start playing, and when they decide they want to play live poker, guess where they’re coming? Las Vegas. It adds to the poker-playing community. Casinos would be nuts not to want this legislation passed.”

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