Science & Technology

Ante Up Against Government Intrusion

The case against Internet gambling bans


Not long ago, a district judge in Colorado declared that poker is a game of "gambling" rather than "skill" because "while poker … might involve some skill, these games certainly are contingent 'in part' upon chance, and when, as here, the games involve risking a thing of value for gain, they constitute a form of gambling."

Guess what? Nearly everything we do in life depends "in part" on "chance." So we might as well think of our entire existence as one colossal game of craps—with government as the hairy-knuckled, silk-suited mobster calling in the "vig" (whatever the heck that is).

And if poker were primarily a game of chance—rather than skill—probability dictates that I would have won a decent pot once in my stinking lifetime. I have not.

For me, then, no supplementary evidence is needed to recognize poker as a game of logic, deftness, and deception, with only a sprinkling of luck. But if you're interested, there are reams of studies, law journal articles, and mathematical equations proving poker's rightful place among skill games.

All of this is important why? Well, across the nation, poker players are mounting legal challenges using the "skill" defense in hopes of defining poker as a non-gambling game—both online and in real life.

To begin with, it seems impractical and rather silly for government to decide what games we can play. Chance or no chance, it is un-American (to pinch a phrase from Madam Speaker) for the police to raid suburban restaurants and pubs so they can weed out the debauchery of low-stakes Texas Hold 'em. Yet that kind of raid is not as rare as you may think.

And how many rational Americans believe that federal diktats on computer gaming are reasonable intrusions into the privacy of citizens?

Since 2006, Republicans—who acted like a gaggle of hand-wringing Carrie Nations—have been pushing a clampdown on Internet gambling, sponsoring legislation to make it illegal for banks and credit card companies to process payments of gambling operations. The Justice Department has frozen or confiscated $34 million belonging to players who have a talent to take it from schnooks like me.

We all know the cliché about the two certainties of life. One of these certainties can be affixed to poker gamers, making a once-underground activity a government boon.

The other certainty of life is made immeasurably more bearable by occasionally indulging in pleasurable activities, which, for some, happens to include playing poker on a computer for money.

After all, when it's convenient, Republicans argue that Americans have entirely too much government interference in their daily lives. Here they have an opportunity to shed a thin layer of hypocrisy by supporting legislation that allows citizens to indulge in an activity they enjoy in the privacy of their own homes.

One such bill, offered by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), currently has more than 50 co-signers (a few Republicans).

In the Senate, Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), recently introduced the Internet Poker and Games of Skill Regulation, Consumer Protection and Enforcement Act (not surprisingly, government has the ability to make playing cards sound like a joyless bureaucratic mess), which stipulates that poker "is part of the cultural and recreational fabric of the United States" and should be legalized.

Now, I will concede that simply because an activity is part of the cultural and recreational fabric of the nation does not necessarily mean that we have a patriotic duty to legalize it, or pot, prostitution, and Ponzi schemes already would be on the legislative docket.

One thing at a time.

David Harsanyi is a columnist at The Denver Post and the author of Nanny State. Visit his Web site at