Monday, October 09, 2006

Thoughts on Poker Crackdowns

The recent crackdown on online gambling has made me remeber another series of crackdowns on poker in my life. Once, in New York City, where poker clubs have always been technically illegal, there was a thriving underground poker scene. Any night of the week, you could go to a club and play in a tournament, a no-limit Texas hold'em cash game, limit poker games, and I knew even of a $5-10 rotation game that consisted of Omaha, Hold'em, Seven-card stud, and even Pineapple poker.

Pros such as Howard Lederer, Dan Harrington, and Erik Seidel got their start in these clubs. They were featured in my favorite poker movie, Rounders.

The first time I went to a now-gone club on the upper west side, Mickey Appleman was there. It was a poker paradise, just a walk or a subway ride away from anywhere I was in the city. While I can't claim to be as good as World Series of Poker bracelet winners, it is also where I spent many of my first hours playing poker. Like the NY poker scene, many World Series of Poker champions would not be champions without online poker. Chris Moneymaker and Greg Raymer are just the most famous, but there are countless other successful tournament players who started online.

When the busts began, it didn't seem like that big a deal -- clubs had been busted before, and others had always sprung up in their place. At first, it seemed only the sloppiest clubs were getting hit -- ones mentioned in papers, advertising on Easy targets. New clubs kept opening. Then, the larger clubs got hit, and their replacements, too. Soon enough, the casual players that used to drop by with their friends fell away, leaving mostly sharks in the formerly fish-filled poker waters. Finally, the club I played small-stakes no-limit hold'em at, a small .25/.50 game with a maximum buy-in of just $60, got shut down. It marked the end for me at the clubs -- I couldn't keep up the search just to be shut out again. More and more people I knew had been at the clubs when they were raided and lost money. And besides, I still had my home game. And, of course, online poker.

Like the recent crackdowns on online poker, there were politicians claiming that the money the owners of the poker clubs was going to unknown criminal activities, that the law was protecting the community, that these goings on were dangerous. That poker was gambling and gambling was bad. I don't believe that poker is gambling, but I'm going to leave that aside for the time being.

Despite the fact that Rep. Jim Leach, who backed the legislation, believes that "Gambling from your bedroom or living room or dormitory is not a socially useful activity," I strongly disagree. Just as I made friends in the brick-and-mortar card rooms of New York, I made friends through the virtual world of online poker. Beyond the fact that I've befriended many poker bloggers, I have spent enough time in certain card rooms to have made screennames "familiar faces" online. I have played with people I know in real life who don't live near me online and gotten a chance to spend some virtual time together. I have played in and seen countless charity poker tournaments online that have helped real live people and families and communities while building a sense of goodwill in all who played. If that isn't more "socially useful" than betting on the ponies or buying lotto tickets from my living room (which are both still totally legal) than I don't know what "socially useful" means.

Unlike the crackdowns on underground NY poker rooms, there are still some things we can do to protest. Join the Poker Players Alliance. Keep playing at Full Tilt or wherever you can. Write your representatives. It's not over ... yet. But I have a bad feeling about all this, and I hope that online poker does not go the way of the NY card room.

Related reading: Comparing Prohibition & Online Gambling Ban


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