The rain was falling as I approached the Nicholas Lebanese restaurant. It was a typical wet and cool late fall day in south-east Portland. I was five minutes late to meet with a Washington state poker playing friend who was in town. He was staying at an ordinary Motel 6 nearby. He drove three hours south from his home in Seattle for the sole purpose of playing the game he loves and makes his living on, poker. Coming to Portland hadn't been his choice. Full Tilt Poker, the last of the major U.S. facing poker sites to offer poker to Washington state residents had pulled out.
Fear over enforcement and penalties had chased out all the poker rooms, preventing my friend from playing online poker. The legislation, which now makes playing online poker a Class C felony with penalties of up to five years imprisonment and a $10,000 fine per violation, was heavily lobbied by the Native American card room and gambling entities in the state that feared losing significant business to the online world.
One of the Washington state senators who pushed through the original legislation from 2006, recently broadened to include online gaming, remains unremorseful. "I just think some of these arguments are utter nonsense," Sen. Margarita Prentice told ESPN.com. "You mean you're going to move so you can play poker? Gee, lots of luck in your life. … I have nothing against card playing. That's fine. If you want to do that, but I'm sure not going to worry about someone … you know. Let them go pump gas."
The reality is the state legislation, much like the sneaky UIGEA legislation, was hastily enacted. "That bill passed after one quick committee hearing," said state Rep. Bruce Chandler, one of the five who voted against the amendment. "I voted against it because I believed it was wrong to target the player instead of the host or producer of the website. To make it a felony I thought was excessive. It was an effort to try to regulate online gambling from outside of the state without the authority to regulate the host. I'm not a big gambler myself, but I don't believe they should go after players who choose to gamble online. I don't think it should be a criminal offense and I thought it was overreaching."
Numerous high profile players will need to leave the state to continue their passion and vocation. Some well known Washington based players include Phil Gordon, Brandon Cantu, Lee Markholt, Dan "Sketchy" Martin, Matt Afflect and Lee Watkinson.
As for my friend, he ran into difficulty when he reached Portland. While he was outside Washington, Full Tilt still recognized his IP as being from Washington and continued to block his play. What were his choices? Purchase a new laptop/computer with new non-Washington router/modem? Purchase a wireless aircard? Purchase a VPN (virtual private network)? After advice from a poker forum, he decided on the VPN. He is currently debating returning home and playing using the VPN, but he is nervous that his funds could be confiscated if he is discovered. He misses his girlfriend who remains in Seattle. He brought along his dog, but that is a temporary situation, not suitable to a long term stay in Portland.
He said he has suffered from sleepless nights since access to online poker has been interrupted. Over the years, he has invested some of his winnings in other non-poker related side businesses but he isn't ready to leave poker behind. The games may be tougher nowadays, but at heart he still feels he's a poker player. The thirst to do well remains. He has established roots and connections in the Seattle area. He doesn't relish having to move again. He is a cash games player, but found the local card rooms unfriendly when he played there. He doesn't play many tournaments, so his options are limited.
It is a shame that states and governments feel the need to try to legislate morality, especially when they are so hypocritical in support of some vices, while aiming to prevent others. To the informed observer, it all comes across as a shallow money or power grab. Governments are rarely moral at heart, rather consumed with using moralistic excuses to further their agenda and protecting those that support them financially.
I hope it works out well for my friend. Governments need to realize that legislating and regulating online poker is the way to go to gain access to even further financial resources of which they are in much need. In the meantime, he's welcome to crash at my place if he needs a safe place to play poker for the night.
(* both political quotes excerpted from Gary Wise's ESPN article on this same topic)