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Many online poker players have taken what in their parlance would be called the ultimate bad bet. When they went to cash their winnings, the checks bounced. According to the Poker Players Alliance, the Department of Justice has seized over $30 million related to online poker. Now online poker exists in a legal gray area. Just how gray depends on what cards you're holding, as NPR's Mike Pesca reports.
MIKE PESCA: Former U.S. Senator Alfonse D'Amato, current chairman of the Poker Players Alliance, wants you to know this.
Mr. ALFONSE D'AMATO (Chairman, Poker Players Alliance): The law does not make it illegal for people to play poker.
PESCA: True enough. But last week, the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of New York added a little addendum: You can play poker online, you just can't legally collect your winnings. The seizure of assets controlled by such banks as Wells Fargo and Citibank is a new gambit in anti-gambling enforcement. Up until now, the federal government had relied on the Wire Act to go after offshore bookies, says State College at Buffalo business law professor Joseph Kelly.
Professor JOSEPH KELLY (Business Law, Buffalo State College): Most lawyers would say that the Wire Act only applies to sports betting and not to other types of gambling. This is going to be one of the arguments that all the payment processors will be using - that this is poker, it has nothing to do with sports betting and, therefore, the Wire Act is inapplicable.
PESCA: Three years ago, Congress did pass the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, but gambling experts like Kelly, say despite the tough-sounding name, that law is a bit toothless. It also doesn't seem to be coming into play in the latest seizure.
More likely, the Department of Justice is relying on a few different federal statutes, like the Wire Act, but also some laws designed to stop money laundering. The DOJ has always maintained that any form of online gambling was illegal, even if it never went after the assets of poker players themselves.
Benham Dayanim, a lawyer who has represented online poker sites, believes that the U.S. attorneys have legal backing in defining poker as gambling, and online gambling as illegal.
Mr. BENHAM DAYANIM (Attorney): Most poker aficionados and professional poker players would tell you that skill really determines the outcome over the long-term. Nonetheless, if you look at the court decisions that have examined this question, they almost uniformly determine that poker is a game of chance for purposes of gambling, and therefore is considered gambling.
PESCA: Not that Dayanim agrees with the courts or even agrees with the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act.
Mr. DAYANIM: It's a terrible law - absolutely terrible.
PESCA: The Poker Players Alliance thinks so too, and says that a better one is needed - one that legalizes and regulates a potential source of tax revenue.
PESCA: Right now, Representative Barney Frank has authored a bill that would legalize online poker. D'Amato supports the bill, even if when he was in Congress, he and Frank didn't see eye-to-eye on most issues that didn't include one-eyed jacks. A new law, D'Amato says, will take the issue out of the hands of law enforcement.
Mr. D'AMATO: These kinds of prosecutorial tactics sometimes gain great headlines for those who are pushing them, but doesn't really advance the cause of justice. To try to stop people from playing poker on the Internet should be one of the last considerations of government.
PESCA: Lawyer Benham Dayanim predicts that the issue will be resolved when the poker sites find a way to quietly reimburse their customers and establish more elaborate payment methods far outside the reach of U.S. authorities. Until then, the Justice Department has pushed its chips forward and is daring anyone to call.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.
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