Wednesday, October 6, 2010
Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court in my old state of Washington ruled that a law passed in 2006 banning online gambling was perfectly constitutional. It was a 9-0 decision, and thus a pretty easy one for the justices to make, but the ruling carried enough weight for PokerStars, a popular online poker site, to ban anyone with a Washington State IP address from playing on it.
This is the kind of news that affects maybe only a few thousand people seriously, but for professional online poker players in Washington—some of whom I know personally—this was the worst possible news. Online poker has existed in a legal gray area for some time now, but this court ruling eliminated all shades of gray; playing poker on your computer, as opposed to in a casino, is a Class C felony. If all poker sites take this ruling as seriously as PokerStars had, it will become impossible to play online poker in Washington, meaning that online poker players who rely on poker to pay the bills will have effectively lost their jobs.
The more you consider the law, the less sense it makes. There is the old argument, “gambling is evil, all evil things should be illegal,” but gambling is legal in Washington State, and not just on Indian reservations. When I lived in Seattle, you could drive just outside the city limits and play poker in a number of card rooms. This document from the Washington State Gambling Commission says, “Gambling has a history of connection to crime and corruption and as a result is strictly controlled virtually everywhere. Just because gambling occurs on the Internet doesn’t change this potential or the concern.” But surely the converse of that last sentence is true too—just because gambling occurs in a brick and mortar casino or card room doesn’t make it any less addictive or prone to corruption.
So why was this law, which deprives a bunch of people of their formerly (semi) legal income, passed in the first place?
Well, duh, it was passed because a bunch of rich casino owners wanted it to be so. When people gamble online, presumably, they aren’t gambling in a casino, and this understandably outraged the Native American tribes who run large gambling enterprises like the Tullalip Casino. These tribes have boatloads of money and they’ve invested a lot of it in the one enterprise in America guaranteed to give you a good rate of return on your investment—campaign contributions.
The sponsors of the original bill--Margarita Prentice, Karen Keiser, Daniel Kline, and Paull Shin—all received substantial contributions from groups like the “Campaign for Tribal Self-Reliance” which have close ties to the Indian casino business. The Congresspeople did what politicians always do and help out the people who helped them out and introduced the online gambling law, which was quickly passed because the other Congresspeople likely wanted contributions from the tribes to keep coming, and also because passing laws against “immoral” activities like gambling is a fun and popular thing for politicians to do. Never mind that the anti-online gambling law was bankrolled by a bunch of people who make their living off of gambling addicts and suckers, and never mind that it hurts the professional and semi-pro poker players (who are the small businessmen of the gambling world). Gambling is bad, so anti-gambling laws must be good, right?
Gambling addiction is a serious problem, yes, but gambling addicts aren’t going to stop gambling because they can’t play online. They’ll just go to the casino instead—which is of course why this bill was passed in the first place, to benefit big in-state casinos at the expense of international poker sites and the people who make money by playing on them. (Not all professional online poker players can simply switch to playing in the casinos and the card rooms—that’s a long car ride for many of them, and many card rooms don’t offer the variety of games that the online sites do.)
The truly maddening thing about this law is not that it’s an arbitrarily oppressive law passed at the request of big-money interests. It’s that this law is an example of the system working pretty much perfectly. A special interest group wanted a law to be passed, they made the necessary (and legal) donations and the politicians did more or less what those groups wanted. Everything was documented, and although there was clearly a quid pro quo exchange, no one can be said to have done anything technically unethical. Everyone cooperated, and we got a law that puts people out of work so large moneyed institutions can thrive. Good job guys.