This first happened yesterday afternoon over in the Senate where the Committee on Indian Affairs had an oversight hearing on “The Future of Internet Gaming: What's at Stake for Tribes?” Then this morning came a second meeting in the House of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade to talk about “Internet Gaming: Regulating in an Online World,” in particular the bill proposed by Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) to license, regulate, and tax online poker in the U.S. (H.R. 2366).
Yesterday’s discussion in the senate regarding Native Americans’ potential stake in a regulated online gambling environment in the U.S. did deal in some specifics with regard to how it might be reconciled with the current situation and the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988. Otherwise, the talk was mostly of a generic variety when it came to what such an environment would be like.
The upshot seemed to be that proponents of regulation all want to assure the Native Americans that neither their current rights nor their brick-and-mortar casinos will be unduly threatened by the dawning of a regulated online gambling in the U.S. Meanwhile, representatives of the Native Americans’ interest are somewhat divided, with several sounding less than enthusiastic about such a prospect.
That is to say, there are more than a few reservations from the reservations.
Meanwhile, today’s House subcommittee hearing was much more specific about logistics and seemed to indicate the real possibility that the Barton bill could move forward soon. Still, there were a number of points made to suggest at least some legislators aren’t thrilled with the idea of allowing anything like H.R. 2366 to move along, including Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) whose nickname may or may not be “Big Bad.”
Channeling our old friend Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-AL) -- the House Financial Services Committee Chairman currently scheduling hearings to look into insider trading while being accused himself of having benefited from the very same practice (no shinola) -- Wolf spoke of suicides and ruin as unavoidable consequences to unleashing the “crack cocaine” of online gambling upon citizens who will necessarily be unable to control their worst, most self-destructive instincts.
Responding to Wolf in today’s hearing, Rep. Barton tried to distinguish poker from other gambling games -- his bill is, after all, poker-specific -- promoting it as a true test of skill that primarily attracts intelligent people who aren’t in such dire need of governmental hand-holding. Referencing the World Series of Poker on ESPN, Barton praised the smarts on display there, noting how the players seemed more like “very intelligent, ‘MIT’ type engineering people” than potential gambling addicts.
Wolf wasn’t really hearing that argument, and indeed others who would support Barton’s bill such as Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) who also testified at today’s House hearing aren’t that excited, either, to start distinguishing poker as particularly different from other gambling games. Not when it comes to arguing for individual liberty and citizens’ rights to play those games, anyway.
All of this made me think of a Forbes article that just appeared a couple of days ago by Jeff Bercovici titled “Poker Shuffles the Deck.”
Taking an argument that is currently being advanced by the International Federation of Poker, the group currently holding a duplicate poker tournament in London (“the Nations Cup”) designed to highlight the skill the game requires, Bercovici discusses current efforts to try to “rebrand” poker as a “mindsport.”
Besides improving poker’s cultural status (and perhaps helping legislators like Barton make his case for poker’s difference from other gambling games), such a “rebranding” may also help in the securing the support of advertisers other sports currently enjoy. So goes the argument, anyway.
“If poker ever manages to transcend its unsavory origins and become a mainstream sport with big-league sponsorship -- and that's a big if -- it will have followed a familiar path,” writes Bercovici. He then goes on to compare poker to Mixed Martial Arts, stock car racing, and even football -- all sports that weren’t initially accepted by the American culture at large before eventually becoming some of the country’s most popular sports to watch.
The comparisons are interesting, as is the overall effort to “rebrand” poker into something more acceptable to more Americans. I can’t help but think, though, that it would be easy to take all of this too far -- to try to characterize poker as a game that does not involve real gambling, or to make the game over into something else entirely (as one could argue duplicate poker tries to do).
Barton’s words today implied the idea that it’s mostly super-smarties playing poker, but we all know that is hardly the case. And even if everyone who played poker approached it as studiously as many approach other “mindsports,” it would still be a gambling game in which chance necessarily plays a significant role. And well, not everyone is okay with that.
Apparently there might be another online poker-only bill introduced over in the senate before the end of the year -- at least that is what the New York Post reported this week. Harry Reid (D-NV) is said to be behind this one (again), with UIGEA-architect and former opponent of all things gambling-related Jon Kyl (R-AZ) allegedly on board as a co-sponsor. Kyl is on that “super committee,” you'll recall, and so some are wondering if the subject might have come up as that group works on discovering ways to reduce the deficit, including creating new revenue sources.
Am highly curious to see where all of this legislative pushing ultimately goes. And, of course, what the poker “brand” will become in terms of its significance to American culture if and when it does.