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Poker is a widely popular game these days. But is it a game of skill or chance? That's one of the questions on Capitol Hill this week. The Poker Players Alliance brought in its top players to lobby against a federal ban on Internet gambling.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: From outward appearances, lobbying in poker don't seem to have a lot in common.

Unidentified Man#1: Welcome to the Rio and the World Series of Poker presented by...

OVERBY: But the more time you spend with poker players on Capitol Hill, the more you realize they do. Andy Bloch approached both missions the same way, methodically, as befits someone with two degrees from MIT and one from Harvard Law.

ANDY BLOCH: I have a collection of old poker books. And they talk a lot about poker being played here by everybody - by the representatives and the staff and the presidents and the senators and the Supreme Court justices. Everybody play poker. Everybody still does.

OVERBY: What they don't play, or at least they're not supposed to, is Internet poker. Last year, Congress voted to kill off Internet gambling by outlawing the financial transactions that make it work. Bill Frist, then the Senate majority leader, slipped it in to a must-pass bill without debate. The alliance argues two points, that poker is a game of skill and that Congress shouldn't tell citizens what they can or can't do on their own computers. That's what Andy Bloch was doing on Capitol Hill.

VANESSA ROUSSO: Is this everyone or...

NORRIS: I think we might have a couple more.

BLOCH: We got almost enough for a poker game, I think.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OVERBY: Bloch met up with Vanessa Rousso and some other poker pros to chat up a sympathetic congressman.

Rousso is a third year law school student. She also finished seventh last year in the World Poker Tour Championship. If I had been expecting some sort of riverboat gambler, she sure wasn't talking like one.

ROUSSO: Well, you know, it comes down to (unintelligible) reverse on the inductive analysis and a lot of experience and learning about patterns and human psychology why people act a certain way and then learning to decode what they're doing in the current situation to determine the strength and quality of their hand. And since we play some of the hands, we can generally narrow it at least to a range of the hands, if not, you know, the particular hand.

OVERBY: An approach that works of buildings of marble as well as at tables of green cloth. At the end of the day, the alliance threw a Capitol Hill reception. Barry Greenstein's Web site lists 14 charities that get his tournament winnings. He suggested he's never thought much of politics.

BARRY GREENSTEIN: I'm an academic at heart, so I don't expect their intelligence level to be as high as I'm used to in academia. But actually, I've been pleasantly surprised that the group that I've met is more intelligent than I expect. They listened to the arguments. The people that I got to beat looked like they were hardworking people.

OVERBY: The Poker Players Alliance has four lobby firms on retainer. One is the firm of lobbyist extraordinaire, Tommy Boggs, another, a former New York senator, Al D'Amato.

The alliance's director, John Pappas, says they can afford a pretty sophisticated approach.

JOHN PAPPAS: Well, I'm not going to say which firm is doing what, but we have firms that focus on Republicans, we have firms that focus on Democrats, we have firms that focus on African-American members of Congress, we have firms that focus on females, et cetera.

OVERBY: This morning, the alliance held a forum on Capitol Hill. Attorney Kenneth Adams said that in order to change the law, they need to scare lawmakers into realizing that poker players can punish them on Election Day.

KENNETH ADAMS: And you got to tell them afterwards that you voted against them because they didn't. And you're going to do it again and you're going to get through your friends next time.

OVERBY: The poker players are expecting this will be a long game.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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