No figure strikes fear into the hearts of the poker players and media quite like Sheldon Adelson. The Las Vegas Sands Corporation’s head honcho is a billionaire a few dozen times over and has gained a reputation as a willing dispenser of those funds when it comes to trying to sway policy. The poker industry, beaten up as it has been over the last four years or so, becomes antsy every time the blustery octogenarian gets his ire up over the progress of online poker in the United States, which in these heady times of regulation and multi-state compacts is more often than ever. Adelson certainly does have a few qualities that could, in theory, make for a dangerous opponent. The creator of more than 50 businesses during his 80 years on this planet, he possesses the stubbornness of all successful entrepreneurs. His bankroll is undeniably large, which allows him access to high places. The thing is, any potential harm that those qualities present is outweighed by the weaknesses of the man who possesses them.
Sheldon Adelson may be a multibillionaire, but his money has often backed losers, especially in the realm of politics. Adelson funded multiple Congressional campaigns in Nevada against Shelley Berkley, who had once been a legal adviser to Adelson before he fired her in 1997. He claimed it was for violating attorney/client privilege; she said it was because she encouraged him to cooperate with workers at his Venetian casino. Berkley survived them all to serve seven terms in Congress before stepping down to run, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate in 2012. She wrote in 1998 that her former boss’ M.O. was to “plot vendettas against anyone whom he believed stood in his way. However minuscule the perceived affront, he was certain to go ballistic, using his money and position to bully any ‘opponent’ — great or small — into submission.”
Adelson also fought a long battle with the Las Vegas chapter of the Culinary Union, losing in circuit and appellate courts before being slapped down when the Supreme Court refused to hear his case explaining why sidewalks outside the Venetian were a First Amendment-free zone where union members shouldn’t be allowed to picket. He even spent money in 2007 on ads supporting then-President George W. Bush’s troop surge strategy in Iraq. But the most high-profile and recent of these losing efforts came during the 2012 primary season when he backed the candidacy of doughboy/egghead hybrid (and former Speaker of the House) Newt Gingrich. The campaign’s only decent showings – a win in South Carolina, second place in Florida, and the expected win in his home state of Georgia – were indeed the result of Adelson dumping money into super PACs to produce anti-Romney “documentaries.” But they were easy wins for a regional favorite against a weak frontrunner. Outside of friendly territory, Adelson’s cash propelled Gingrich to third- and fourth-place finishes nationwide in what was universally recognized as one of the worst GOP fields in recent memory. In the end, Gingrich’s greatest accomplishment was somehow ending his campaign with $4 million in debt despite having been underwritten by Adelson for essentially the entire season.
All these past results tell a story, but there’s a much more important factor in play when it comes to guessing Adelson’s future performance: when it comes to online poker, Adelson has already lost the biggest battle. His competitors in the brick-and-mortar market have already made it through to market, with all the clearing of legislative and regulatory hurdles that entails. While Adelson has dug his heels in and screamed at the local kids to get off his lawn, they’ve gone and created new revenue streams for three states. Every now and then a politician will make some friendly noises toward the old man’s position against online casino gambling, but up to this point there’s been nothing to suggest that they’re anything more than the sounds of baby birds begging him to cough up some campaign cash. Otherwise we wouldn’t have regulated online casino gaming operating within the U.S. today.
None of this is to say that Sheldon Adelson is a complete non-threat to poker. In socially conservative states where his money can back the establishment and not the upstarts, he could certainly make life difficult for anyone who hopes to play online again. But aside from the relatively small number of places where politicians have more to gain from backing Adelson than they do by either staying neutral on his pet issues or actively taking up the other side, he’ll never be effective. Unless he’s willing to spend his billions on balancing state budgets instead of filling individual politicians’ campaign coffers, state governments still battered and bruised from the 2008 financial crisis are going to choose new revenue streams over what an old man wants. Given his contempt for what he sees as creeping socialism throughout the country, the chances of that are about as slim as they come.
So the next time you see Uncle Sheldon making noise about a crusade against online poker, don’t get too upset. He might have a lot of money, but when it comes to influencing politics he doesn’t have a track record of spending it efficiently at all.