Thursday, August 16, 2012

On the PPA; or, Fight! Fight! Fight!

Fight! Fight! Fight!Was talking yesterday about the official completion of the agreement involving the U.S. Department of Justice, PokerStars, and Full Tilt Poker and some of the early post-agreement machinations that have resulted, one of which is the reemergence of that “FTPDoug” character who has come back into the online poker narrative in a different guise (“FTPMarkus”), apparently this time to be patterned more closely after his real self (Shyam Markus).

Among the other reactions to the completion of the agreement late last week was Poker Players Alliance Executive Director John Pappas writing a guest editorial about it for Forbes, the business magazine (and site) that has been reporting consistently about Black Friday and its aftermath over the last 16 months.

The PPA might be regarded as yet another “character” in this ongoing drama, kind of an eccentric one, really, who generally appears on stage moments after a meaningful plot development involving the story’s central players. Usually the appearance is marked by the repetition of certain slogans (“Poker is not a crime!”) and reaffirmations of the PPA’s commitment to fight for poker players’ “rights” (as the PPA understands them).

In the case of the Forbes op-ed, however, there appeared an extra bit of analysis regarding the agreement and what Pappas and the PPA believe it suggests regarding the DOJ’s stance on the future of online poker in the U.S.

Pappas highlights the fact that the agreement “very clearly left the door open” for PokerStars and FTP to return once the laws change and “the United States decides to license and regulate this great American pastime.” He is alluding to what the DOJ said in their press release accompanying the agreement, namely, that Stars “is prohibited from offering online poker in the U.S. for real money unless and until it is legal to do so under U.S. law.” (As would be a Stars-run FTP or any other site.)

For Pappas, this part of the agreement represents a “hidden gem” indicating the DOJ’s judgment about current laws and the need to license and regulate online poker in the U.S. “This sends an important message to Congress,” writes Pappas. “The Justice Department could have very easily banned PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker from the United States forever. Yet it chose not to. It chose to clearly recognize that online poker can and should be a viable industry in this country. Now the question is, will Congress listen?”

Poker Players AllianceThat Pappas is making a hopeful, almost delirious leap here should be obvious. The DOJ doesn’t say a thing about the need to legalize online poker or its prospects as a “viable industry” in the U.S. Rather the DOJ stays well within its charge to enforce current laws while also stating its intention to continue to do so in the future, correctly leaving the business of drawing up those laws to legislators.

A few days ago on the crAAKKer blog, Grange95 pointed out some of the problems with Pappas’ statement about the DOJ and the idea it is sending a “message” to lawmakers with the agreement. His post notes that Pappas misrepresents the DOJ’s position here, calling it “a stupid and unnecessary rhetorical gamble.”

Grange95 is right -- the DOJ isn’t saying what Congress should do going forward with regard to online poker. Even that much-heralded September 2011 memo (made public last December) in which the DOJ clarified its position regarding the Wire Act applying only to sports betting said nothing in particular about online poker. Nor did it address the UIGEA; in fact, it explicitly noted how the UIGEA was outside the scope of that particular opinion.

Now the opinion expressed in the memo certainly implies how the DOJ might choose to enforce the Wire Act vis-à-vis online poker going forward. Such an interpretation seems to be the impetus behind states’ moving ahead with legislation. But even there it wouldn’t be right to characterize the DOJ as somehow calling for the passing of new laws.

As the enforcer of the law, the DOJ does get to have opinions and make judgments about current laws and how to apply them. But it doesn’t get to make the laws. Nor should the choices it makes when enforcing laws be automatically understood as “messages” to legislators about those laws, or about the need for new, different laws. (Rather are such messages about laws more “clearly” delivered in courtrooms when they get challenged and rulings are made regarding them.)

Grange95 talks further about how the DOJ might not appreciate the PPA characterizing it as pro-online poker. Indeed, the title of his post -- “Did Pappas and the PPA Just Shoot Full Tilt Players in the Foot?” -- suggests the DOJ might even be affected somehow by the PPA in a way that could negatively affect U.S. players getting their FTP funds back. But he doesn’t really pursue that point too far in the post. (For a response addressing both that suggestion and another view of the PPA op-ed, see Chris Grove’s rejoinder “No, the PPA Did Not Just Shoot FTP Players in the Foot.”)

According to the PPA, 'The Players Will Never Fold'The PPA is a lobbying organization, fully immersed in the language of politics and campaigning. It isn’t that surprising, then, to see them spin the agreement in a way that makes it fit more neatly into its usual rallying cries.

Maybe I’m being affected by the fact that as we edge closer to the November elections we’re also being inundated by politicized language and argumentation, with just about every statement about anything getting spun into some sort of “platform” or statement of position or other form of campaigning. It is exhausting, though, constantly to be seeing others make this rhetorical move -- that is, to see everything as part of the “the fight” and thus try at every turn to turn all actions or statements into something positive for “our” side.

Makes me think of that PPA slogan “The Players Will Never Fold.” In poker, hands go by in which nothing particularly good happens for us. We can’t win every hand. We can’t even compete, sometimes. There are hands we have to fold. And then we sit and watch others’ fortunes being affected, with the outcome often having no special significance on our own.

Never folding is a losing strategy. There are times the best “Action Plan” (another favored PPA phrase) is not to act -- not always to “fight” -- but rather observe and assess. Then later we might act in an informed way, with purpose. And with a chance to win.

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