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The case for legalizing online poker in Maryland | COMMENTARY

In this 2019 file photo, Dan Accardo plays video poker at Crabby's Pub in Stickney as the game went online in Illinois.
In this 2019 file photo, Dan Accardo plays video poker at Crabby's Pub in Stickney as the game went online in Illinois. (Antonio Perez, Chicago Tribune)

Marylanders will soon be able to wager in person and online on the outcome of a sporting event, but poker players in Maryland remain unable to compete and wager online. With the ascendancies of sports betting, it is time for Maryland to join six other states — New Jersey, Delaware, Nevada, Michigan, West Virginia and Pennsylvania — in legalizing online poker.

Ten years ago, poker players in America did not have to dream about the possibility of making a wager. Online poker was popular and growing until April 15, 2011 — known as “Black Friday” to poker players — when the FBI and DOJ unsealed indictments against the biggest online poker sites effectively ending the possibility of placing a wager in an online poker game.

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Hearing the word “indictment” coupled with online poker may be enough for the uninformed to recoil at the idea of giving online poker a second chance. Depending on whom you ask, Black Friday was either the work of overzealous prosecutors or the greedy, manipulative hosts of online gaming platforms. Importantly, the vast pool of poker players and the game itself are beyond reproach.

Despite its reputation for Wild West shootouts and degenerate players, poker is a complex endeavor that fosters many virtuous habits. Given that anyone can play at an open table, it is a welcoming practice. The openness of the poker table breaks social, class and racial divisions. Walk into the poker room at the Horseshoe Casino in downtown Baltimore and witness for yourself the intersections of our community. Players of every racial and ethnic group from the city, suburbs and exurbs alike sitting elbow to elbow.

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In a world crying out for systemic fairness and equity of opportunity, poker offers a model. The cards do not care who plays, and they fall as they are dealt, not how the players would like them to fall. There are no “ol’ boys’ clubs” or bribes or insider trading. Entitlement exists only as a liability for players believing they deserve a particular outcome.

Furthermore, far from being exploitative, poker frees individuals to make important decisions in contexts where rules, rather than privilege and bias, prevail. The market price, or bet, is always clearly and publicly announced for all players to see. Similarly, the number and cadence at which cards are revealed is always the same. Special exceptions do not apply. It is within this framework that players are left to make frequent, relevant and consequential decisions contributing to a strong sense of both freedom and responsibility.

For example, players are free to engage in high risk behavior like bluffing. However, unlike high risk activities such as trading derivatives, poker players do not expect, nor receive, golden parachutes. In fact, bluffing teaches the lesson of “buyer beware,” and it literally encourages players to make the most out of the hands they have been dealt in life. It is not accidental that many excellent poker players come from otherwise suffocating and stultifying life situations.

What the players can control is how they think about the opportunities presented to them, which investments are wise and which are unsound. At its core, poker is a small business with each player operating his or her own personal franchise. Each business owner must learn to make complex decisions with incomplete and partially random information. Here, poker is considerably more challenging than chess, where all information is known prior to making decisions.

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For those still unsure, remember the demise of online poker in America was the fault of large operators, yet the suffering party is the little guy, the small-town poker player. The problems leading up to Black Friday are well documented and involve cheating, managerial neglect and fraud. It’s a sad story, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

The question is not whether online poker can be played with integrity. The experiences of six states and numerous countries proves the excesses that caused Black Friday can be restrained. With the legalization of sports betting, Maryland has now added another form of gambling where the outcomes are entirely out of the control of those who participate. Poker, in contrast, allows players to participate in the game, to take some control of the outcome. As with sports betting, online poker would bring additional revenue to the state. Maryland should join its neighbors and lift the ban on online poker.

Adam Sutton (MisterSutton1@gmail.com) is a BCPS social studies teacher, and Joe Pettit (Joseph.Pettit@Morgan.edu) is an associate professor of religious and philosophical ethics at Morgan State University.

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