I have a love-hate relationship with the game of poker.
I love to win and I hate to lose. Luckily, I don’t lose as often as I used to.
I started playing poker after moving to Southern Nevada in 2004. Small stakes, of course, because us journos don’t make too much money. Still, I fell in love with the game for a few reasons.
One, I had always loved playing cards, particularly with my grandmother as a child. She taught me all the old school games, Euchre, Spit, Blind Baseball, Seven-Up and a host of the more family friendly games.
Second, one of my bestest friends in the whole world is this character from Texas whose grandfather was a total kick ass poker shark from the 1970s and 1980s. His name was Jesse Alto, and any player worth his or her stripes knows exactly who that is — he’s the man who lost the 1976 World Series of Poker to Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson’s fluke 10-2 starting hand. (Brunson made the 10-2 famous in poker land because he won the 1977 WSOP holding those same two cards, beating his all-in opponent again.)
And finally, I learned to love the game because for a few years starting in 2004, I was a writer and managing editor for a few Las Vegas gambling industry trade publications. Working for trade publications provides you with a certain amount of access to the industry side of things that most players never see. So, like a wide-eyed kid in a toy store, I was lucky to be on the ground floor when poker mania struck. Just a year earlier, a nobody accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker won a seat online into the 2003 WSOP — his fluke win set the stage for a massive expansion of the game and the business.
Poker rooms opened all over Vegas to meet the new demand. Online casinos, most of them foreign-owned, started raking in billions — billions — by offering games and tournaments online.
Poker was going gangbusters, and still is for the most part, except for one problem — the online world of poker was totally up-ended. They call it Black Friday.
On April 15, 2011, federal prosecutors unveiled major indictments against the big three, most profitable online poker rooms, Poker Stars, Full-Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker. Mayhem ensued. American players, the most profitable customers in the world, were overnight shunned. Even today, finding a game online is a major hassle, though many still try to gut it out with fly-by-night companies offering shady games and mostly treacherous payout methods. (I don’t trust any of them, sorry Calvin Ayre).
Black Friday wasn’t just a disaster for players. It was a disaster for the gambling industry. A big screw-up that could have been avoided had federal legislators simply moved faster to put in place regulations to make the game legal in the U.S. They had ample opportunity to cash in on the craze and chose to do nothing. Last year seemed like a year in which poker would finally be legalized across the country, but the fiscal cliff and the do-nothing clowns in Congress let the opportunity slip away again, and with it a great opportunity to pad the public coffers with a new tax scheme. Ugh.
Now, a few states, including Nevada, are going it alone, creating a new regulatory and licensing environment and building the infrastructure to very soon allow major gaming companies to offer online poker. In Nevada, the Gaming Commission is set to approve the state’s 18th and 19th interactive gaming licenses next week. One of those will go to a subsidiary of our own Golden Gaming, parent company to the Pahrump Nugget. Actually, the offices for the online company will be located at the Nugget because the license stipulates that it be attached to a physical casino. Pahrump — future online poker Mecca!
This is great news for poker lovers. Online play is as fun or more fun as playing in a casino. It can be more lucrative, too. But, I suspect the going will be tougher than it should since only Nevada players — and players visiting Nevada — will be able to play. This limits the market considerably and means less money for our own gaming companies than if they could offer games nationwide. Less money means less available to re-invest and less tax revenues.
But, that could change, too, with or without Congress. A movement is afoot to have Gov. Brian Sandoval enter into interstate compacts with other states that are poised to legalize online poker, such as New Jersey. This could expand the field of players, making the experience more enjoyable as well as profitable. A patchwork of such agreements could cut the federal government out of the whole deal anyway. Good.
I think legalizing online poker is a no-brainer. I don’t believe the same is true of anything else, except maybe sports betting. Online slot machines and table games like Caribbean stud favor the house too much for my taste. Only in poker are players playing each other (the house, and soon I suspect the state government, merely rakes the pot).
I just hope our own state legislators don’t drag their feet like the federal boys and girls. I have but one message for Carson City — shuffle up and deal already.