Sunday, April 17, 2011

All In To Sigh

So on Friday, federal prosecutors unsealed fraud and money laundering charges against three of the biggest online poker sites, and seized the Internet addresses, which more or less shuts them out cold. The charge is that the operators tricked banks into processing payments from U.S. customers, violating the 2006 law that prohibits illegal Internet gambling operations from accepting payments. Notice that this law was passed by the Republicans, so if you feel angry or happy about one party for this, you are probably wrong. But moving on.

Now, these sites have always been run from places where online gambling is legal, just in preparation for such a day, really. And I'm sure the laundering charges are correct, since there's clear and present evidence of bribery and fictitious online businesses that claimed to sell jewelry, golf balls and all kinds of stuff, when in reality they were processing poker payments. They even managed to put cuffs on a few people, though there are some gray areas involved in this, since a poker game is frequently international commerce, and up in the air on the jurisdiction. If I play from New Jersey against guys in eight other places, and some of us are in the U.S. and others aren't... who is breaking the law, and where? It's a case where the technology is simply outracing the precedent, because you aren't really playing anywhere when you play online. Location is theoretical, and irrelevant. What's really the issue is whether or not, of course, the commerce can be taxed, since that's where the rubber hits the road when it comes to government regulation of an inherently lawless activity.

No one, by the way, should feel bad for the sites involved. I've worked for online advertising companies that did these pieces, and the description "colorful" is about the nicest thing you can say about the clients. It's a consumer category where you get the money up front, preferably in hard currency, and when you take it, you more or less ensure that your company can never go public or be taken seriously by investors or venture capitalists that have any kind of long-term vision. You also count a lot of money.

According to the numbers, seven million Americans play online for money on a monthly basis. A small aside: I'm not one of them. Playing online for cash to me has always seemed like the Pandora's Box of timewaste, and I've got enough things to do, really; this blog alone proves that. I run a home game once every three weeks, go to a casino a half dozen times a year with friends, and waste my time with Facebook poker from time to time. It's enough to make me wonder if I have a problem, and not enough to make me know it. In other words, just like tens of millions of other players. I generally make a little more than I lose, and enjoy it a lot, but only when I'm winning. Unique story, that.

Whether or not all of these small players vote or donate to campaigns is, of course, a whole 'nother matter, but my guess is that a true voice for People Like Us is never going to be heard, simply because the small player is never going to act in a collective manner. Plus, many of us play in as privately a manner as humanly possible, since the losses here can put you in dutch with any number of people, really. Imagine, if you will, having a poor year on your credit record, which an increasing number of employers use in the hiring process. Fun times.

Personally, I had dreams that when Rep. Barney Frank's bill was making its way through the Congress a few years ago, that a more mature and thoughtful day was coming. Prosecuting these sites means nothing; people are still going to gamble, and I'd rather see them do it in a competitive marketplace, rather than one that's locked down into bad rake casino experiences at the ever-increasing number of palaces of misery that are popping up in every area where governments are ready to take the short-term gain of gambling revenue. The fact that the President has been known to play a few pots was also encouraging.

But then the tide turned, the Republicans took the House back, and we've moved to a brave new day of the Democrats trying to be weak sauce Republicans, too. And while it's simplistic and silly to believe the sides are one and the same (if, for no other reason, that you don't get to call one side weak-kneed socialists on Monday and jackbooted thugs on Friday; a small amount of consistency is appreciated, dammit), the casual viewer can be excused for thinking it. Particularly if you are now scrambling to see if the bankroll you made on one of these sites is ever coming your way.

And perhaps I'm just being naive to think that a federal case against the lucrative backwaters of the Internet actually reflects the true intent and purpose of the executive branch; one hopes, really, that with three theatres of armed conflict, 9% unemployment and the House actively trying to make sure old poor people eat cat food and die quickly, they'd have better things to do with their time.

But there's a funny thing about doing stuff on a Friday afternoon; it's usually not the part of your work that makes you filled with pride. Especially when you work for the government, and have to worry about public outcry or dismay over your actions. Friday is when you bury the news, rather than brag about it. Had this gone down earlier in the week, I'd suspect it to be the Obama Administration's move to add a few more value voters, or to make hay over the idea that unfettered gambling has ills beyond when people of means lose their tip money. But when you do it on a Friday, you tell us all that you are trying to slip it under the rug, because you are doing this as some part of unannounced deal, and you don't really want to talk about it.

Because, in the final analysis... when consenting adults choose to be separated from their money from the comfort of their own homes, rather than the comfort of a live poker room? So long as they do it for less of a rake, I think that's a win. Even though I look forward to taking their money at the live table, too.

(Oh, and if you are looking for another bright side to this? We might wind up with a few hundred less brazenly hateful "pro" players who play for free at that tournament that you grinded like mad to get into. Breaks my heart to see those guys off a teat, it does...)

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