By Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports
October 16, 2006
Last Friday, President Bush continued the United States' uneven, inconsistent and utterly baffling love-hate relationship with gambling when he signed the "Security and Accountability for Every Port Act" into law.
That bill mainly dealt with securing our ports against terrorism, but like everything in Washington, there were unrelated riders attached that get forced through because there aren't many politicians willing to vote against securing and accounting for our every port a few weeks before election day.
In this case, one of those riders blocks American financial institutions, such as banks and credit card companies, from making transactions with Internet casinos – a move that already has caused market leader PartyPoker.com and some, but not all, poker rooms to stop accepting money bets from the United States.
The law may turn out to be toothless. But it also may shut off online poker to all but the most serious players who are willing to open offshore bank accounts.
I don't play poker, online or in casinos, because I don't have enough free time to get good at it, and I am not such a fool that I would gamble against people who do.
But I understand why so many folks do play – and I have no problem with that.
And neither should the federal government.
Unless you want to go all puritan and ban all games of chance – casinos, horse tracks, lotteries, bingo, 50-50 raffles and so on – there isn't any ground to stand on in this debate.
Gambling is gambling is gambling, and the people of the United States of America have spoken clearly on the issue – we love it.
But our lawmakers have adopted a vast and confusing system of situation ethics; this form is banned by the government, that form is protected by the government and this form (lotteries, convenience store keno) actually is run by the government.
None of it makes intellectual sense except to say it is all about which form of gambling is most effective at buying off the politicians.
And please, spare me the Hannity and Colmes screech fest about "those Democrats" and "these Republicans." Both parties are completely compromised here, completely bought out and completely at odds with what they claim to be about. This is bipartisan foolishness.
Republicans are supposed to stand for limited government, but here they are telling people they can't play online poker in the comfort of their living room? And for all their bluster about the dangers of gambling at home (as opposed to a smoky, free-booze offering, oxygen-pumping casino) they allow an exception on this bill for horse racing and interstate lotteries? Gee, I wonder why.
The Democrats, meanwhile, are supposed to be about protecting the poor, yet they are the strongest proponents of state lotteries, the most regressive forms of taxation ever invented (the less money you have, the more likely – statistically – you play.)
By the way, if you watched any of the Congressional hearings on this thing, you wonder if any of our elected officials know anything about the Internet. And the lack of common sense in Washington is comical – almost as comical as the fact this bill was blocked three times because former lobbyist Jack Abramoff paid off Congressmen on behalf of a gambling service company. Abramoff got sent to the clink for that (and other bribes), which, unfortunately in this case, got him out of the way for the bill to sail through. What a country.
The government's deal with gambling mirrors our major sports leagues. Sports wagering is illegal everywhere except Nevada because the leagues will tell you they fear the games will be corrupted.
But if this is such a real concern, why allow it in even one state? And isn't this illogical because gambling experts say the billions wagered with organized crime's street bookies make game fixing both more likely and easier to conceal?
This also spits in the face of the obvious: That interest in the NFL, college football and the NCAA basketball tournament – to name just three – is exponentially greater because of betting.
The leagues make big money off gambling. They just don't want to admit it.
The NCAA, no surprise, is the most hypocritical. A student-athlete that bets on a single NFL game will be banned from college competition and publicly shamed, but the school he plays for still is allowed to operate 50-50 raffles at his games.
Essentially it is a maze, a mess that the law-abiding fan who might want to spend a Sunday watching and wagering on the NFL in a legal sports book – or playing poker from his or her home – can't.
You can't explain how poker, which requires significant skill, is a more dangerous vice than a mindless keno game in a bar, which requires none?
I completely understand that the National Council on Problem Gambling estimates that we have some two million pathological gamblers and four to eight million more who can be defined as problem gamblers. And yes, it would be nice if the Americans who spend $20 per week on scratch tickets put it instead into retirement accounts – a far, far smarter "dollar and a dream" plan.
But the government doesn't really care about any of that. Trying to curtail online poker isn't about protecting those people or "the children" as politicians love to scream. It is about protecting current legal forms of gambling in the United States.
The politicians aren't getting enough (in donations, taxes and old-fashioned bribes) from the online poker people to turn their back on the casinos, the lotteries, the horse tracks and the rest.
It is a straight payoff and nothing else.
And because of that, the regular guy loses.
Talk about a bad beat.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006 2:59 am, EDT
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