American fans of online poker were plenty interested in the federal government’s stance on the game long before Black Friday, but since that day they’ve moved from interest to obsession. Every piece of news coming out of Washington is dissected in detail; like Rome’s augurs observing the natural world for signs of divine approval of the emperor’s plans, every remotely interested party picks apart each story in a search of a signal that Americans will soon be back to their old habit of moving all-in light just because they don’t like some European player’s avatar.
Such was the case a few weeks ago when Roger Gros of Global Gaming Business tweeted 138 characters that supporters of online poker could get excited about: “Source: NV Gov. Sandoval calls top casino execs and tells them of agreement between Reid & Kyl, adding internet poker to payroll tax bill.” The information from the tweet spread across Twitter and the poker news landscape like wildfire. Never mind that the source was unnamed, or that there was no further confirmation of such a deal from the named parties’ representatives, or even that: the hope of America’s great mass of former online poker players had been confirmed! Then, almost as if on cue, a rebuttal of that information came later in the day from the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Washington correspondent, who quoted Gov. Sandoval’s spokesperson as labeling the Gros tweet “patently false.” Less than two weeks later the possibility of attaching a poker bill to a payroll tax bill was officially declared dead and poker players were back to waiting for good news again.
We know now that the news wasn’t true, but for a moment, let’s think back to when it hit. Trying to assess how reliable the information is became essentially impossible, because both sides of the question insisted they were telling the truth; try to make sense of that and you’ll end up right back where you started. It’s a microcosm of the entire struggle to get our favorite game up and running online once again. After all, this is precisely the sort of exchange that’s become old hat for Americans following the progress (or lack of it) on the online poker issue: a source couches supposedly “insider” information in terms specifically designed to get online poker supporters excited, online poker supporters get excited, and a denial from an official source (followed by a lack of action consistent with that denial) leaves online poker supporters right back where they started.
One big problem here is that people will happily click on anything that suggests to them that the goal of legalization is close at hand. The hype machine of news sources and users has been hungry for information about legalization since 2006 and has only become hungrier sinceBlack Friday; it immediately pounces upon anything that even begins to resemble a move toward legalization and quickly spreads such “news” across social networks and drives traffic to the sites that deal in it. Even if the news turns out to be false hope, there’s no reason for the press side of the machine to be concerned: the audience always comes back for more because they’re that invested (either emotionally or financially) in the return of online poker.
Besides leaving them unfulfilled, the end result is that American online poker players are in a very uncomfortable position politically. Our pastime isn’t considered wholesome enough for a large number of powerful people to agree to legalize it. That means the menu of options for pushing that legalization through is extremely limited: we can attempt to build a coalition with people who are normally opposed to us and will probably impose their stringent morality on any workable compromise, or we can use a stealth approach the way the architects of UIGEA did. The first is highly unlikely to work, and the second is nearly impossible to achieve in the current environment because nobody can keep quiet long enough to allow the dirty work to be done. Gov. Sandoval didn’t actually call casino executives with good news as suggested by the Gros tweet, and Sen. Reid didn’t pull a quick one in Washington. But one has to figure that at some point the senator may find himself in a position to do so, and that the governor will also be in position to pass the good news on to the casino companies who backed all that legislation in the first place. And on that day, they’ll have to choose between either letting that information go public without a denial and possibly harming the cause, or lying to cover it up just so they can get the job done.
That rock-and-a-hard-place is no good for anyone who loves poker – or for anyone who loves living in a representative democracy. If you happen to love both, you could be forgiven for considering yourself screwed for the foreseeable future.