Election 2008: Will Obama help online poker?

Barack Obama

With the U.S. presidential election less than a month away, prospective voters are scrutinizing candidates on many issues of concern. Most of these are addressed during debates or on the candidates' Web sites.

One issue important to the poker community, however, has not been addressed by either of the major candidates - the prospects for Internet gambling, specifically online poker.

Because neither has explicitly stated his position with respect to this issue, PokerListings will attempt to predict how online poker legislation might fare under either an Obama or a McCain administration as well as look at which of the various third party candidates would be most supportive of online gambling. This first of three articles deals with Sen. Barack Obama.

The Poker Players Alliance, the million-person-plus grassroots poker advocacy organization, posted on its Web site a letter written by Sen. Obama in response to a letter apparently from a constituent asking about his position on online gambling.

A full copy of the letter is available at www.ppa.org, but the gist of his response was noncommittal at best. Obama summarized the state of current laws concerning online gambling, then wrote vaguely, "I recognize both the need to comply with federal and state laws and the desire of many Illinoisans to not have the federal government over-regulate their behavior. As opportunities to reexamine this issue arise, I will certainly keep your concerns in mind."

So without a clear statement, what can we deduce about how online gambling may fare under an Obama administration?

The Barack Obama Web site does not contain any statement relating to online gambling, nor does the Democratic National platform cite any position on the issue.

During the primaries, the poker community saw little difference between Obama's attitude toward the issue and his then-opponent Hilary Clinton's, with most sites claiming they would each "support a study involving the regulation of online poker and gambling in general." It was noted that Obama is also considered an accomplished poker player himself.

In a detailed story by Molly Ball, in the Dec. 23, 2007 issue of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Obama's position on gambling in general was examined going back to his days in the Illinois state legislature.

Back in 1999, Obama voted against a bill to expand riverboat gambling in the state of Illinois to include boats moored dockside. At the time, according to the article, Obama seemed to take a decidedly antigambling position, saying that loosening of restrictions on casinos in his state was a "race to the bottom."

Less informative were the answers Obama provided back in 1998 and again in 2002 for the antigambling group Illinois Churches in Action. He answered "undecided" on whether he favored adding riverboat and land-based casinos in the state.

Similarly, the words "not sure" were penciled in as answers to questions about several forms of expansion, such as moving casinos from rivers to land and raising the gambling age to 21.

According to the Review-Journal article, in 2003, while still in the Illinois Senate, Obama was quoted as saying that he believed the "moral and social cost of gambling" was potentially "devastating" and that using gaming as a source of revenue or for economic development was "irresponsible."

Similarly, in a Las Vegas Sun article written in advance of the Nevada Democratic primary, the author claimed a review of Obama's record shows that he "worries that the Internet is 'a Wild West of illegal activity.'"

The article went on to say, however, that Obama apparently "supports a study of Internet gambling and supports regulation to address the worst abuses." According to this article, representatives of his campaign claim Obama believes that the government should "bring [Internet gaming] under regulatory control to stop the worst abuses." But Obama is not on record as having taken this position.

Even with this less-than-rousing support for online gambling in Obama's background, there seems to be a certain consensus in the poker community. Anthony Cabot, a Las Vegas lawyer and cofounder of the International Masters of Gaming Law Foundation, expressed this sentiment when he told the Las Vegas Business Press, "I think if Senator Obama was elected, [the UIGEA] would be more likely to be repealed."

Cabot focused primarily on the fact that the leading Internet poker advocate in Congress, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), is an Obama supporter.

Indeed, because most of the anti-UIGEA legislation has been initiated by Democrats, it is not too much of a stretch to think that such legislation might be more successful under a Democrat president. That is certainly the position of Cabot, who believes if Obama is elected, and the Democrats retain control of Congress, the UIGEA regulations may be delayed, modified or killed completely.

As mentioned, neither Barack Obama nor the Democratic Party platform has adopted any position regarding online gaming. But a number of bills have been introduced by Democrats over the past two years seeking to chip away at the UIGEA.

In addition to Barney Frank's bill, Democrats spearheaded the Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act, which seeks to legalize Internet gambling. Congressman Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) introduced the Skill Game Protection Act, to exempt poker and other games of skill from the UIGEA, and Congresswoman Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) has introduced the Internet Gambling Study Act. Most recently, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) introduced Sen. Bill 3616 to regulate and license poker, and other games of skill, over the Internet.

Doyle Brunson
Doyle is playing his cards close to his vest, but initially he endorsed Obama as the best candidate for online poker.

Doyle Brunson, one of the legendary figures in the world of professional poker, and a lifelong Republican, came out and endorsed Obama during the primaries, stating his belief that Obama would help lift "the ill-placed ban on Internet gambling."

This news spread throughout the poker community like wildfire. But his most recent post, dated Oct. 13, has attracted little notice. In it, Brunson admits that his vote is still undecided, though he is now leaning toward McCain: "I still haven't made up my mind who to vote for but I'm tempted to vote for McCain."

As the PPA's Congressional Ratings Guide (http://www.congressionalpoker.org/) shows, it's not a simple Republican-versus-Democrat issue. Although it was two Republicans who rammed the UIGEA through Congress, many prominent Democratic senators have earned Fs and F-minuses for their strong antigambling stance, while some Republicans have A ratings for being pro-online gambling.

For a while, it seemed that the online gambling community would have special access to the Obama campaign when it was reported that Hunter Biden, the son of Obama's running mate, Sen. Joe Biden, was going to be lobbying on behalf of Internet gambling. But the younger Biden resigned from the lobbying firm shortly after his father was selected by Obama so as to avoid a conflict of interest.

So what can we deduce about what a Barack Obama presidency might mean for online gambling? With a Democrat for president and a Democrat-dominated Congress, Democrats may find it relatively easy to push through whatever legislative agenda they feel inclined to.

And with the economy in trouble, there may be some move toward finding a way to reap tax benefits from, rather than ban, online gambling.

So, despite Obama's antigambling rhetoric as a state senator, it appears he would not be a hindrance to efforts to repeal the UIGEA and pass legislation to license and regulate online poker.

On Sunday PokerListings will bring you the scoop on what we think Sen. John McCain could do for online gambling as U.S. President in Part 2 of this series. Stay tuned!

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