The Las Vegas Review-Journal published a strong editorial in favor of federal online poker legislation yesterday. Titled “Congress must reverse foolish online poker policy,” it avoided mentioning Sheldon Adelson’s prohibitionism entirely and focused instead on the recent shutdown of Nevada’s Ultimate Poker. Ultimate’s chairman, Tom Breitling, said the week before that federal restrictions had created “an extremely cost-prohibitive and challenging operating environment,” and the RJ editorial made a strong case for an end to Congressional meddling. But when it comes to potential for making legalization happen on its own, poker’s time has come and gone. And oddly enough, its best chance to get back onto American laptops and mobile devices now may be to tag along with sports betting legislation.
There may eventually be a renaissance of sorts for the poker online, but pushing for legislation to legalize poker on the federal level is essentially impossible today. The peak of the poker boom is receding further back into history with every passing year, the games that do exist are small and dominated by sharks, and poker’s popularity in American culture has been on the wane since long before Black Friday. If legislation specifically to legalize online poker couldn’t make it through Congress when the game was still highly popular and the Senate Majority Leader was from Nevada, the chances of it passing today, particularly with the new Republican-controlled Congress coming into power in January, are next to none.
Sports betting, on the other hand, is more popular today than ever before. If you want to take the narrow view, it’s still only legal to bet on individual games in Nevada. But the state of New Jersey is currently battling in federal court to legalize sports betting, defending a law which its legislature passed and its governor signed. Look a little wider and the landscape is much more friendly than it’s ever been before. Real-money daily fantasy sports leagues, the only form of sports betting explicitly legalized by the UIGEA, are thriving in popularity today. Sites like DraftKings and FanDuel are advertising with the major sports leagues now. And DraftKings even sponsored several of the players at the final table of this year’s World Series of Poker Main Event.
When it comes to legalization today, there’s a world of difference when it comes to institutional support between sports betting and poker. The NBA’s commissioner has begun leading the charge to legalize sports betting, which he called “inevitable” earlier this year and which the majority of Americans support, according to a recent poll. Other major leagues aren’t on board, but the NBA has a template sports betting law based on research in other countries – and as the NFL continues to stage more games overseas where betting is completely legal, they might be tempted to change their stance back stateside.
Meanwhile, online poker is drowning without support from any major players. The American Gaming Association, which once testified before Congress in favor of federal online poker legislation, has now backed away from that stance as one of its members spends millions encouraging federal prohibition. The only active force consistently lobbying Congress on online poker is the Poker Players Alliance, which hasn’t had much effect so far and isn’t likely to see a watershed moment anytime soon. As such, online poker legislation on its own is a dead letter, particularly with Sheldon Adelson crusading against all online gambling and his minions coughing up legislation in response.
If the sports leagues, who have traditionally been the major opponents of allowing sports betting outside Nevada, change their tone on legalizing sports betting, they could easily counterbalance Adelson’s influence in Washington. And since the NBA and their ilk are pretty likely to outlive the one guy in America who really cares about prohibiting online gambling, having them enter the fray would be a pretty strong signal that the game is going to change. The irony in such a situation would be pretty thick because poker proponents had the chance early on to encourage the legalization not just of poker but of all gambling. Instead they avoided the question altogether until after the UIGEA was passed, and then fell back on seeking a carve-out from the law for online poker as a game of skill.
The old saw that poker isn’t gambling may be true in a handful of cases for the most talented players, but in the long run everybody else has to beat the rake, just the same as sports bettors have to beat the vig on their losing wagers. Still, that’s the line was pushed. It was a more politically attractive angle when trying to get a law passed in a conservative Congress than arguing that all forms of online gambling should be legalized. Besides, who cared if others got to gamble the way they wanted, so long as those millions of players in the world’s hottest game got to continue taking to the tables?
In the end, trying to leave all other gambling out of the equation proved to be just as effective as a full frontal assault for all gambling would have been. And it had the side effect of alienating a lot of people who otherwise would have been allies to the poker community. Looking back a few years from now, we may end up seeing the sale of PokerStars to Amaya as the first major sign of the end of poker’s hopes for being the only game on the block. Amaya has been angling to launch a sports betting product in 2015 since before the acquisition, and the customer database they bought along with PokerStars contains plenty of would-be sports bettors just waiting for an invitation.
Instead of being a gold mine because they’re loyal poker customers at the world’s largest poker room, those PokerStars players could eventually end up being most valuable primarily because they’ll no longer have to go elsewhere to bet on the games that they watch while they’re playing in their favorite cash games or tournaments. And if they’re able to play from the U.S., there’s a chance it will only be because poker was tacked on when the NBA’s template law was ushered through Congress after a few years of heavy campaign contributions to the right legislators. If so, try not to choke on the irony while you’re watching Monday Night Football, check-raising that donkey on your left and hoping the Seahawks cover the spread.