Five on Friday: Who’s Looking Out For America’s Online Poker Players?

Five on Friday: Who's looking out for the poker players best interests?

When it comes to the future of online poker in America, casino companies and gambling opponents are easily able to represent their interests. That’s what money and organization can do you for you. But for actual poker players – the people who make poker rooms valuable in the first place – finding a way to be part of the conversation is much more difficult. So who’s looking out for them?

1. Barney Frank and Ron Paul

Five on Friday: Who's looking out for the poker players best interests?Congressmen Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX) have been the voice of poker players in Washington for several years now. On paper they’re unlikely bedfellows – one is a big-government liberal, the other a small-government conservative – but in action they’ve been one of the few While it hasn’t resulted in successful legislation to keep American poker players from having their game of choice cut off from them, the Frank-Paul alliance has been the engine that has pushed poker forward in D.C.

Their joining of forces despite a difference in personal politics is symbolic of the diversity within the poker community, one of its greatest strengths. It’s also been the most reliable conduit to getting the issue of legalization to the House floor because both men are philosophically predisposed to support personal freedom. Unfortunately there’s one big problem with having these men as allies: neither is running for reelection. Paul has chosen to push his philosophy on the presidential campaign trail, which could be the seed of a much brighter future for poker players down the road but isn’t going to do much to affect legislation in the short term. As for Frank, he isn’t running for president but he has already announced he will retire from the House at the end of this year.

At this point Frank and Paul are like retiring veterans who have carried a sports club into the playoffs numerous times but never gotten within sight of a championship. They’ve served the team well and it’s absolutely worth celebrating them for that service. But at the same time, the game moves on; you have to constantly be on the lookout for advantageous positions unless you want to cede ground to your opponents. Online poker players can’t afford such a cession.

2. Joe Barton

Outside of Paul and Frank there’s really only one voice on Capitol Hill speaking up for poker players right now, and it belongs to Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX).

So far as allies go, Barton is a curious one for online poker players. He is a poker player himself, though not of the online variety. He has introduced legislation that would relieve states of having to worry about federal intervention if they choose to get into the business of regulating online poker, even though the states already have the authority to regulate businesses within their own borders. He has given online poker issues a greater profile in Washington through multiple Congressional hearings, but the testimony in those hearings has focused almost exclusively on issues with only the loosest connection to players’ concerns. He appears to make all the right moves, but he doesn’t have a lot to show for making them.

While he’s not the most divisive figure, there also isn’t a true consensus in the community about Barton. Some are more than happy to have Barton on its side – after all, he is championing a bill that would theoretically get American poker players on the fast track to returning to the online tables – but some of the support for him is rather tepid. Others aren’t convinced that the Congressman, who has enjoyed a boost to his campaign coffers since taking up the cause of poker players, is entirely good for them. Some, like I. Nelson Rose, have even wondered aloud whether Barton is playing the players for all they’re worth – and then caught flak from the rest of the community for doing so.

To carry my earlier metaphor one step further: if Paul and Frank are veteran leaders heading into retirement, then Barton is the player who logged one good season and had the good sense to employ an agent who could land him a sweetheart deal at the expense of a team in desperate need. Some of the fans are happy to have him, and others hope the team will get rid of him. He’s going to hold down a roster spot for a while and most likely put up serviceable numbers. But if a chance came along to land a bargain or a true star player, management would probably look to offload him at the first opportunity.

3. The Poker Players Alliance

There’s one notable group with the express stated goal of promoting the interests of poker players, and that’s the Poker Players Alliance. Despite this raison d’être, the online poker community’s support for the PPA has varied from weak to middling for all sorts of reasons.

If the sole measure of effectiveness is passing a bill to get poker players back to the online tables, the PPA has not been very effective at all. But looking at the bigger picture, the PPA most certainly has value for poker players. It has put significant effort into identifying who poker players’ friends and enemies are in Washington. And while it’s impossible to prove, it’s highly likely that the PPA’s amplification of the voices of poker players through a persistent presence on Capitol Hill has at the very least held off even more damaging legislation than UIGEA. That certainly counts for something.

Perhaps the biggest problem for the PPA is that it can only be truly successful if significant numbers of poker players jell into an organized mass. That’s an uphill battle to say the least. It’s unlikely that you could find a group less suited than poker players to speaking with with one voice. (This is, after all, a group of people capable of using “it depends” as an answer to just about any conceivable question.) Yet poker players desperately need to be able to present a united front, given that their interests are last on a list behind those of social conservatives who oppose gambling for opposition’s sake, big-government types who hate the idea of anyone not paying for the privilege of being free, and casino corporations whose mission of padding the bottom line can many times run directly counter to what’s best for players. Even if the community can’t always get its act completely together, the PPA still stands as the best vehicle for representing player interests.

4. Writers

One of the biggest obstacles facing American poker players is that their voices are nearly mute when compared to the booming bravado of the forces aligned against them. Luckily there are always writers out there looking for a good story – and some of them are capable of reaching wide audiences.

For a solid example of how writers help American poker players, one need look no further than an article entitled “Online poker kings get cashed out” published yesterday in a number of American alternative weeklies, including Miami’s New Times, Denver’s Westword, Dallas’ Observer and Los Angeles’s LA Weekly. In the article, writer Chris Parker tells the stories of a cross-section of those hit hardest by Black Friday: American poker players.

Parker sketches out the tales of online players Walter Wright, Maxwell Fritz, Michael LaTour, Brian Mogelefsky, and Vanessa Peng, all of whom have moved away from their previous homes in order to continue plying their trade. He also explores the reach of Black Friday into ancillary markets by telling of how business has fallen off for gambling bookstore owner Michael Minkoff. In the middle of these tales of livelihoods devastated and families separated by the fallout from Black Friday, Parker asks a pointed question: “Why are the feds chasing honest, taxpaying citizens out of the country? Especially for something as benign as playing cards, an act committed by nearly every American?”

That sort of questioning is invaluable; when it comes to the online gambling industry the mainstream press rarely bothers to delve any deeper into the story than the latest PR release from government or big-business sources. It’s not hard to understand why they’re so shallow in their reporting – most journalists know next to nothing about online gambling, so in a way it’s almost better for them to write nothing at all than to craft something damaging. But their inability to to counter the more outlandish claims of online gambling’s opponents is easily exploited by those looking to exercise power at the industry’s – and players’ – expense.

Every time a writer from outside the poker press publishes a story about the hardships faced by Americans who once made their living playing the game, the public gets to see a different side of the issue that has nothing to do with casino companies or the machinations of government. They get to see the human side of an issue that is normally only discussed in the terms set out by agents of government. For most people, unless they personally know someone affected by Black Friday, these kinds of stories can be a first glimpse into how cracking down on online poker has more impact than just burnishing some aspiring US Attorney’s resumé. Given that players are fighting against a very powerful assortment of enemies, there’s no underestimating the PR value of writers penning these kinds of stories for publications outside of poker’s orbit.

5. The players themselves

Retiring representatives, representatives who can’t muscle bills through Congress, an advocacy group that can’t assemble a critical mass, and writers whose work takes a long time and doesn’t always reach large audiences: if each of these people and institutions were a card in a poker hand their collective strength would be middling at best and very poor at worst. That’s the kind of hand you’re likely to fold in an awful lot of situations. Yet in the fight for explicitly legalized online poker in the United States, most poker players simply aren’t willing to consider folding an option. That leaves them in the kind of situation where coming out a winner requires determination and wits of the highest degree.

One of the oldest truths in poker is that the only person who can truly look after a poker player’s best interests is the player himself. (As the old saying goes, “Trust everyone, but always cut the cards.”) If they want things not just to change but to actually get better, American online poker players have to marshal all their resources. They need to seek out true allies in every level of government. They need to get their stories out to the media. They need to do what they can to organize. And most of all, they need to not roll over for their opponents.

In the spectrum of parties interested in the future of online poker in the U.S., there are undoubtedly individuals and groups that have an interest in protecting players. But it’s equally undoubtable that those interests are all motivated by something other than being the one whose bankroll is on the line every hand. If players get thrown under the bus those interested parties may shed a tear… but they certainly won’t feel the pain of being run over.