The banishment of U.S. players from the major online poker rooms has affected millions of Americans. With the exception of a few jurisdictions, such as Washington state, it is not illegal for Americans to play online poker. Instead, the Department of Justice contends that according to a bizarre 2006 law, it is illegal for financial institutions to transfer funds between U.S. residents and the foreign companies that offer online poker. In order to prove the obvious, that money was indeed exchanging hands, Homeland Security set up a phony payment processing company in Baltimore to facilitate these transactions so that it could indict the executives of the online poker companies and seize their funds.
Aside from the breathtaking hypocrisy — the federal government has not shut down state lotteries or horse track betting — it is an infuriating invasion of privacy for the government to insert itself into personal choices made by millions of Americans. The companies that provided online poker met a market demand and had paying customers who were satisfied with their services. It is not the business of the government to decide what adults can do in the privacy of their homes with their money. The members of the poker community are shocked that a government that preaches free choice and free markets has moved to destroy an entire industry because a small number of people disapprove of a legal activity involving consenting adults.
Poker players do not need the kind of "protection" from bad financial decisions that the government insists on providing. The fact is, the vast majority of poker players do not derive income from the game. The poker economy is much like the golf economy. A relatively small group of highly skilled professionals are the superstars who win millions of dollars. A larger number of midlevel pros have the skills to earn a modest living. But millions of players simply enjoy the game, and, like weekend golfers, know that the money they spend is for entertainment.
Unlike golf — and for that matter casino poker — online poker can be enjoyed for small amounts of money. Games played for nickel and dime limits are popular online, which makes it possible to spend an afternoon playing with a buy-in as small as $5 to $10. With no travel expenses involved, it is hard to imagine a cheaper form of entertainment.
Online poker is an unusual industry because it has actually asked the federal government to be taxed and regulated. It would be better for all concerned if that were the case. The government's refusal to do so resulted in foreign companies meeting the demand. Now many players are facing financial losses — not because the foreign companies were dishonest but because the government is making it difficult for these companies to return money owed to the players.
For professional poker players, these losses are potentially ruinous. Not just the money currently at stake is at risk, but future earnings expected from an investment of years spent honing a craft are in jeopardy. The ripple effects from these losses reduce the incomes of many other people who are part of the poker economy. There are the makers and sellers of books (myself included), training videos, magazines, software programs and other poker products. There are the computer programmers, salespeople, marketers and support personal. There are the television producers, cameramen and advertisers, because interest in poker on TV is fueled in part by Internet poker.
If, for example, the government moved to destroy the golf industry, there would be similar disastrous impacts on the livelihoods of many people beyond just the professional players. (Golf, by the way, is also potentially expensive, addictive, and has an element of chance built into the game that affects outcomes for even the most skilled players.)
If the government really wants to protect Americans from losing money on bad financial decisions, I have a long list of companies for them to go after. Dozens of companies wrecked the U.S. economy by pushing bad mortgages and bad mortgage-backed securities using questionable selling tactics that bordered on fraud and misrepresentation. But the government has shown reluctance to prosecute these companies. It is a free market economy, the government contends.
The bottom line: Consumers and investors should understand risks and be able to make choices without government interference.
Sam Braids lives in Reisterstown and is the author of "The Intelligent Guide to Texas Hold'em Poker," now in its second edition. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.