Remember the good old days? You know, the times back when we were scared that Sheldon Adelson was going to spend his billions to make online poker illegal just as it was beginning its comeback in the U.S.? It seems like only yesterday that such a quaint distraction was on the minds of poker players and industry types everywhere. The fact is that the online game faces much larger difficulties than a lone old man with a chip on his shoulder and billions of them in his bankroll. And those difficulties come from the same root cause as the vast majority of online poker’s woes in the last decade: politics.
Money in politics
In American politics, nothing determines how quickly an issue is resolved more than money. The more money there is on the line, the surer a bet it is that the issue at hand will become too muddled to solve before the next election cycle comes around. But if you were to donate to my campaign, I’m sure I could convince the Chairman of the Commerce Committee that your issue deserves a public hearing…
The influx of big money into the system over the last few decades has all but eliminated compromise from American politics these days. Congressmen are in perpetual campaign mode, since they face re-election every two years, but they also rarely face competition in general elections since most districts are drawn to heavily favor one party or another. The result is that they tend to dig in behind stances they know will play well in the primary elections, both to party-base voters and the donors who make and break primary campaigns. This goes for both parties, but the Republicans who favor online gambling prohibition are particularly bad.
Without the filthy lucre-inspired political gridlock in Washington, D.C., we could already have a federal bill in place, one like Joe Barton’s that allows states to opt out if they’re not fond of allowing their citizens to do as they wish, or collecting tax money. But there are political deadlocks at the state level, too – one only need look at how much trouble there has been trying pass an online poker bill in California over the last four years for proof that states can jam the system just as good as the feds.
Think of dirty political tricks and online poker, and chances are you’ve come up with Bill Frist abusing his power as Senate Majority Leader to tack the UIGEA onto must-pass national security legislation at the absolute last moment before a Congressional recess. That’s only the most high-profile example, though. The general sliminess of politics infiltrates every aspect of anything it touches.
Sometimes it’s as simple as repeating a lie over and over until a certain percentage of the population believes it even when confronted with the truth. (“Saddam Hussein planned 9/11!” comes to mind. “Children will be able to gamble and money laundering will be rampant in a regulated online market!” does, too.) A corollary to this tactic is to simply insist that a law, like the Wire Act of 1961, bans something that didn’t exist when the law was written, like online gambling.
Other times, it’s slightly more subtle. Without player volume, the big profits that would drive big tax revenues from online poker just aren’t there – so prior to legalizing online poker in the three U.S. states that currently allow the game, the revenue projections used to justify the bills didn’t take into account that players within a legalized state would no longer be able to compete with anybody from outside the state. This trick can help to get online poker passed, then endanger it later when opponents complain that it doesn’t generate nearly enough revenue to justify its existence.
Regulated online poker has produced disappointing results so far, and not just to those who were against it in the first place but willing to spend the tax money collected from it. It’s never been a secret that player volume is the key to success in online poker, but expanding the player pool is almost impossible in today’s political climate.
Part of the problem is the allies that online poker has in government. On the whole, they’re only marginally better than the game’s political opponents, almost entirely because they aren’t pushing to ban it outright. In Congress they hail almost entirely from the Democratic Party, which despite having control of the executive branch and the upper chamber of the legislature has failed to create any traction. The biggest offender in this category is Harry Reid. If he had the political will as Senate Majority Leader that Bill Frist had in 2006, Reid would already be the patron saint of online poker. Instead he sponsors go-nowhere bills every year or two and otherwise tries to ignore the issue as much as possible, leaving it up to the individual states to try and build player volume from scratch.
Then there’s the bigger picture at this precise moment. Bringing up something as frivolous as gambling during a time of national crisis is a political non-starter – and luckily for prohibitionists, there’s always a national crisis these days. With Russia’s constant provocations and the Islamic State destabilizing Iraq far worse than it already was, the U.S. is stumbling toward a war footing once again. Nothing distracts American politics from business quite like war, whether it’s those looking to drag their heels on an issue (like the Republicans) or those looking to cover their own asses against the charges that they’re not serious about national security (like the Democrats).
The bottom line
Online poker in the U.S. isn’t going anywhere particularly soon. The chances of a federal ban going through have always been a long shot and the current political environment doesn’t allow for meaningful expansion. The best we can hope for is for individual states to hash out their respective issues and come online, and then for them to agree to work with one another, as Nevada and Delaware are scheduled to do next year in what’s expected to be a trial run for eventual Nevada-New Jersey cooperation. If that doesn’t suit you, try crossing your fingers and hoping for deep, systemic change in American politics. That way, when multi-state online poker finally arrives in a decade or two, you won’t feel like you’ve waited a particularly long time.