The final table has been reached, and tomorrow nine hopefuls will sit down at the felt to contest a prize purse worth over $1.8 million dollars, with the victor taking home a first prize worth more than $500,000. Hanging above the entire proceedings, however, is the grim specter of the "moral" minority, who earlier this week took the form of the F.B.I. G-men who apprehended Canadian expatriates John Lefebvre and Stephen Lawrence in separate airports on United States soil, an action that has huge ramifications for the Internet gaming industry and, by extension, the poker industry as a whole.
Lefebvre and Lawrence, if you haven't already heard, are the founders of NETeller, the Internet banking and money transfer company, with whose operations the majority of PokerListings.com readers are no doubt quite familiar.
When Bill Frist snuck his anti-Internet gaming bill into an important piece of legislation concerning port security last October, it was hoped (assumed), that although the online poker industry had been dealt a blow, the existence of companies like NETeller would help the industry circumvent the new regulations by letting customers avoid transfering funds directly from poker sites to their bank accounts. It now appears that the government will go to any means necessary to ensure that this will not be the case.
Today, the Federal complaints concerning the founders of NETeller (who, it must be pointed out, no longer have any involvement in the company) were unsealed, and it was revealed that both Lefebvre and Lawrence are facing hard time (up to 20 years in the Federal pen) for "conspiring to transfer funds with the intent to promote illegal gambling."
Setting aside the personal and legal concerns of these two men, both of whom found themselves ambushed by the Feds while they happened to be passing through the country, the implications for the gaming industry are mind-boggling to consider. It is literally impossible to predict how far the U.S. government is planning to take this operation.
Lee Jones (PokerStars.com poker room manager) could find himself in handcuffs at next June's World Series of Poker. We all could find ourselves in handcuffs at next June's World Series of Poker. (Not likely, I'll admit, but as someone who makes his living promoting "illegal gambling," it wouldn't be too far of a stretch to call me a criminal, at least in the eyes of the F.B.I. these days.)
Certainly, the Martin Luther King Day arrests will make life difficult for NETeller, at least in the U.S. market. Further, those online sites who stuck with their American customers after Oct. 1 will now find it even harder to justify their continued presence in the American market. Don't be surprised to find your favorite online poker house re-evaluating its stance on accepting American customers now that the NETeller fiasco is starting to go down.
The most startling, and disappointing, implication of this entire situation is the glimpse it gives into the American government's game plan for this issue. Given a 270-day "grace period" in which to try and shoehorn Frist's legislation into some sort of workable semblance of law, the government has refused to engage in any rational discourse with the affected parties, and in lieu of hammering out a compromise or a mutually beneficial solution, has decided the best tactics for clearing the murky waters surrounding online poker involve guerilla warfare, ambushes, and smash-mouth shows of strength.
While this strategy is flashy and will certainly prove disruptive to people like John Lefebvre and Stephen Lawrence, it will do nothing to advance the cause or solve the problem, and instead will sow distrust and anger amongst the millions of wholesome Americans for whom poker is a hobby and a passion.
It certainly doesn't bode well for any questions of taxation or regulation when the government appears more satisfied by trigger-happy and high-profile arrests than any sort of reasonable debate, and if the status quo is out of the question and regulation a non-starter, the only way poker will be played (and it will be played) will be underground, in dangerous and non-consumer-friendly environs that cause more problems than banning the game will solve.
Anyways, far be it from me to get too political - there was, after all, a tournament played in Tunica today. From a starting roster of 82 on Day 2, the field was whittled down to nine survivors, including Michael "The Grinder" Mizrachi and Internet-phenom Andy Chang. Along the way, we lost Vanessa Rousso, Allen Kessler, Nam Le and even Hilbert Shirey, and we saw an incredible number of suckouts to complement a royal flush that, oddly enough, actually won the hand for its holder, Peter Martin.
The final table will consist of Martin, Chang, Mizrachi, Elvin Simpson, chip-leader Dennis Perry, Gioi Luong, Matt Dean, Larry Vance and Lance Allred, and with all due respect to those gentlemen, it's safe to assume that most of the attention tomorrow will go to the plight of Lefebvre and Lawrence.
It's probably best that it's that way - although the WSOPC event at the Grand Casino in Tunica, Miss., is not in any immediate danger, any threat to the world of Internet poker is an implicit threat to any high-stakes tournament series like the Circuit or the World Poker Tour.
Some great poker will be played tomorrow, and someone is going to come away with a half a million dollars. But the stakes have been raised again, rounders, and if tournaments like this are going to continue to be well-patronized (and publicized) into the foreseeable future, something's got to give. I'll be providing live updates from wire to wire at the final table, starting at 1:00 p.m. (CST) from Grand Tunica. Tune in for all of the excitement, and in the meantime, write your Congressman - and keep writing him until he gets the hint.