Making online poker illegal

Another issue working its way through our government right now is a fight to make playing online poker illegal. Opponents have pointed to the 1961 Wire Act that targeted Mafia bookies taking sports bets over the phone, and interpreted the act to cover any wagering online.

Some of the ambiguity comes from the lack of clarity about whether or not the act applies to individuals placing the bet, or only the companies taking the bet. There’s also the question about whether or not poker is gambling, as it’s a game of skill much closer to backgammon or scrabble than craps or roulette.

Early this month the state of Washington made it a felony to play poker online. This means that if you’re caught playing penny poker on PokerStars in Washington you could face up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. You would have a felony on your record, akin to a child pornographer or drug dealer. You can read more about the Washington legislation here and here.

It’s an interesting note that Washington poker players are now furious given that there was no press about the pending legislation until it passed. The legislation’s main sponsor is also refusing to give interviews about the issue.

It’s also interesting that in 2004 Washington enacted legislation making it legal to place bets on horse races online. And there are several dozen legal casinos and card rooms in Washington. Oh, and don’t forget the state lottery.

So it’s not really that Washington is an anti-gambling state, it’s that it’s an anti-online poker state. Why the discrepancy? Could lobbying from the legal casinos and card rooms have something to do about it?

UPDATE: I just came across this Seattle Times column, where it’s discovered that Washington officials even consider running a website that talks about online gambling illegal.  No, you don’t have to take bets or place bets — talking about betting is considered “aiding and abetting” the online casinos.

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