Over its brief history as a nationwide activity, online poker fell into a legal grey zone. While arguably not strictly legal, for years federal and state regulators left this very visible industry alone. But on April 15, 2011, poker’s Black Friday, The U.S. Department of Justice provided clarity. On that day, the DOJ shut down the operations of all US poker sites. While online poker has resumed legal status for residents in a few states – Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware – online poker remains banned in most of the country. I believe that the current pandemic has brought clarity to this long neglected issue: it is time for the federal government to legalize online poker across the United States.
America constantly grapples with the legal borders of “indulgent” behaviors. The economies around alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex have all gone through the legislative mill repeatedly. The morality of certain behaviors is of course highly subjective. The role of personal choice around industries that exploit people’s potential addictions and vulnerabilities is also a complicated debate. And, of course, the financial gains to individual companies and governments taking advantage of these behaviors can be enormous.
Legalize online poker = a digital revenue stream to help businesses weather a pandemic
The necessities of social distancing and remote work during this pandemic have taught us one thing: some businesses can be maintained digitally and don’t need brick and mortar housing. Regrettably, this is not true for many industries (e.g., travel, gyms), but digital alternatives exist for some. If, on a national and/or state level, online poker is legalized that revenue stream can survive stay-at-home orders. Maintaining flexible and continuous revenue streams through unexpected calamities is likely to become a necessary strategic consideration in the upcoming year.
Will online poker hurt attendance at brick-and-mortar rooms when everything is open? Maybe. Some large casinos were indeed supportive of the Black Friday actions. But when online poker was in its heyday, post Moneymaker, cardrooms like Foxwoods in Connecticut were booming as well. More opportunities to play engendered a widening of the pool, creating more activity everywhere. Also, for large casinos or, in fact, any venue that has slot machines and/or pit games, poker is a minor player in the revenue stream. For many, its a loss-leader. Online poker just is not much of a threat to live casinos.
Legalize online poker = entertainment for the housebound
Boredom is death. At least that’s been my experience. I find it disheartening and a real struggle to get through a day, week, month feeling bored much of the time. This pandemic has put that struggle to the test. While I know many others do better with this, I also know I am not alone. When a Finnish detective series on Netflix is the high point of your spring entertainment, you know you’re hanging by a thread.
For those who enjoy the game, poker is not easily replaced. I frequently equate it to golf. Take away golf, from a player who players every week, and you’ll need to dial a therapist quickly. I believe that most poker players engage responsibly, play within their economic means and enjoy it as a hobby. It provides intellectual and socially stimulation along with the entertainment factor.
Legalize online poker = better regulation
Black Friday did not just end online poker: it exposed a raft of corrupt practices among several of the top sites. Full Tilt Poker was probably the most notable villain, failing to protect player funds in their accounts. They were basically running a Ponzi scheme. Officially legalizing online poker would allow governments to set standards of practice and distribute licenses just as they do for live venues. There would also be oversight and avenues to field complaints through gaming commissions or other regulatory agencies.
Let’s face it, currently, there are people filling the need for online poker through informal means. Like bootlegging and speakeasies in the time of Prohibition, you criminalize a vice, and people will find workarounds. Watching the shady illegal marijuana trade swiftly transform into a respectable cannabis industry shows how quickly these practices can be legitimized.
Legalize online poker = tax revenue
If you legalize online poker and regulate it – guess what? You can tax it! You can tax the organizations that host and profit from online poker, AND you can tax the profitable players who would now be forced to declare this income. That may not be welcome news to the players who may currently be less than forthright about revealing their winnings to the IRS. But, it’s the price that must be paid to increase access and opportunity. In some states, tax revenues from poker cardrooms and casinos help fund needed services. For example, in the state of New Hampshire, many charities rely on revenue generated in poker rooms.
Legalize online poker = fairness
DraftKings and other sports betting organizations cherish May 18, 2018 as their liberation day. On that day, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of lifting the ban on sports gambling. Most individual states immediately leapt in to get things rolling with several states already approving sports betting and many more on their way.
One of the tent poles of the Black Friday shutdown rationale was that poker is luck, and not skill-based. While no one doubts luck plays a role in poker, anyone who has played understands that knowledge and experience have a significant impact long-term.
If you are going to legalize sports betting, how can you not legalize online poker? How is it okay for players in four states to have access but not others?The current pandemic has brought clarity to one issue: it is time for the federal government to legalize online poker across the United States.Click To Tweet
The movement to legalize online poker may seem a frivolity right now. There are a number of more pressing social and health concerns at this time in our country. However, as these more critical issues are addressed, the future digital economy must also be bolstered. There is no certainty about the path of the current pandemic, and no promises that new future health challenges will not arise on its heels. Legalizing online poker will provide an outlet for providers to employ hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and for the players to continue to enjoy their avocation without risking their health in a live poker venue.