Saturday, May 27, 2006
By SAM SKOLNIK AND VANESSA HO
Beginning next month, Washington residents who play poker or make other types of wagers on the Internet will be committing a Class C felony, equivalent under the law to possessing child pornography, threatening the governor or torturing an animal.
Although the head of the state Gambling Commission says it is unlikely that individual online gamblers will be targeted for arrest, the new law carries stiff penalties: as much as five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
The new law, which takes effect June 7, passed the Legislature this year without much public attention. But word has begun to spread among gamblers online and in old-fashioned “brick-and-mortar” card rooms, and the players aren’t pleased.
“To say playing poker in card rooms is legal but that it’s a felony to play online is insane,” said Kerry Welsh, 47, of Bellevue.
Welsh is considering taking a wireless computer outside the state Capitol when the law takes effect and playing Internet poker as a protest until he’s arrested.
Nobody knows for sure how many Washingtonians gamble online, but the practice is huge and growing, fueled by the popularity of Texas Hold ‘em in televised tournaments and multimillion-dollar events such as the World Series of Poker.
In 2005, revenue from online poker sites was estimated at between $1.5 billion and $2.6 billion in the United States, according to various gambling publications.
The Justice Department believes Internet gambling is prohibited under several federal laws, including the Federal Wire Act.
As a result, most of the big, popular gambling sites are operated outside the United States and aren’t directly regulated by the U.S. or state governments.
The Washington law, which upgrades online gambling from a misdemeanor, was an effort to be compatible with federal law, said state Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton.
The law applies to all online gambling.
Gambling Commission Director Rick Day and Prentice, who sponsored the legislation, said the law is necessary, partly to protect the gamblers themselves.
Online poker games invite organized crime and money laundering, they said, and it’s easier for dishonest players to collude against unsuspecting opponents. And when online gambling operators refuse to pay winners their proceeds, some gamblers have said there is little recourse.
It’s also as addictive as other forms of gambling, they add, and more accessible to minors.
Day said the intent of the new law is not to give agents greater incentive to track online gamblers and throw them in prison. Jailing small-time online gamblers is “not the focus of our work,” he said.
But he confirmed that commission agents had gone to the homes of several state gamblers (fewer than half a dozen, he said) about a year ago to warn them that such activity was illegal. No one was arrested.
In fact, no one has ever been prosecuted in Washington — or anywhere nationally, according to gambling publications — strictly for gambling online.
Day said his priorities are to go after national and international promoters or operators based in Washington state — and increasingly, to warn gamblers about the risks and illegality of the activity.
Prentice said the measure had the backing of the state Attorney General’s Office and the gambling commission. Lobbyists from the card room industry and tribal casinos were almost entirely absent from the effort, she said, even though they stand to benefit from the new law.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate and with just five dissenting votes in the House. It was signed into law by Gov. Christine Gregoire on March 28.
Criticism of the new law, some of it targeting Prentice, has appeared on various blogs and gambling news Web sites. Much of it centers on the argument that online gamblers have the right to gamble if they choose.
Those concerns were echoed by poker players at several card rooms around Seattle this week.
“What, is Homeland Security going to get involved in this one?” said poker player Wyatt Wettland, 25, during a break at Goldie’s Shoreline Casino on Aurora Avenue North. He said he plays online every other day, for two to three hours at a time.
A gas station manager, Wettland said he plays online for free, but wants to start playing for money to try to win one of the large jackpots, which are often thousands of dollars. But he had to wait for his credit-card debt to go down.
Up the street at the Drift On Inn Roadhouse Casino, a man who offered only a first name, Nick, was about to join his first card-room game after playing countless games online. He said the online games have helped him learn the game.
“A felony? That’s harsh,” he said of the new law. “I think as long as you’re 18, you should be able to gamble.”
Free or “play money” online poker games are legal, and will not be affected by the new law. But some in the state play poker online for large amounts of money, and a few are even trying to make a career out of it.
Another player, 25-year-old Jeremy, said he’ll disregard the new law. “I don’t care, I’ll still play,” he said.
With a degree in wireless communications, Jeremy said he used to work in tech support. But poker is his full-time job now. He figured he spent 20 hours a week playing online and another 20 hours in card rooms. Once a month, he heads to Las Vegas. He is never far from a computer, which sometimes has three games going on at once.
“Everyone plays poker online. People play poker on TV and celebrities endorse it. It seems like it’ll be tough to crack down,” he said.
He said he has parlayed $1,000 into $13,000 and often wins jackpots of $4,000 to $5,000. Other times, he quits after losing $3,000. But most of the time, he’s ahead, he said.
“Poker players don’t consider it gambling,” he said. “When you win consistently, there’s actual skill in it.”