Free minds, free markets - and free poker!

Fancy Stacking

Reason, the Washington D.C.-based magazine about "free minds and free markets," opens its doors tomorrow evening for a night of poker activities.

"Poker Night At Reason HQ" will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 local time at the magazine's offices, located at 1747 Connecticut Avenue in Washington D.C.

In attendance will be Team Full Tilt pro and former MIT Blackjack Team member Andy Bloch and 2000 WSOP Main Event champ Chris "Jesus" Ferguson. The two poker pros will join Reason for a panel discussion on a wide variety of poker topics before joining the attendees in a game.

Hosting Reason's poker night is Radley Balko, a senior editor at the magazine. Balko testified before Congress on the issue of Internet gambling last year, and has been a consistent critic of local police departments' use of SWAT teams to break up private poker games across America.

According to Balko, more than 100 individuals have sent RSVPs so far, and press outlets such as the Washington Post, Washington Times and the Associated Press will be on hand for the event.

"We've gotten a very favorable response," he says, noting that the magazine's small office will likely be filled to capacity - no surprise given the star power of the pros in attendance.

I talked to Balko today about the Reason poker night, the legal state of online poker, and how the poker community can best pitch its case to the public.

The future of online poker

The cloud of negativity that hung over the poker community after the passage of the UIGEA has begun to lift in recent months thanks to a number of factors, including the WTO's rulings in favor of Antigua and the slow but steady progress of pro-online legislation such as Massachusetts representative Barney Frank's proposed Internet Gambling Regulation and Enforcement Act. The sense that legal online poker is coming back to the United States has been hard for some poker aficionados to shake.

For his part, Balko doesn't seem to think it's quite as close.

"I think Rep. Frank is doing great work, and we have seen some Democrats defect over to the pro-legalization side. But my general perception is that we're still a long way from the Frank bill being passed."

Among the other bills currently before Congress that would benefit online poker is the Skill Game Protection Act, proposed by Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). Rep. Wexler's legislation would carve out an exemption for skill-based games like poker and backgammon without touching the rest of America's shaky legal framework with regard to online gambling.

"The Wexler bill is a little problematic in this idea of drawing distinctions and carve-outs for skill-based games," says Balko.

"If you try to carve out exceptions like that they can be revoked as easily as they can be passed. [A carve-out] is certainly better than a prohibition. But I do think it's important to make the broader-principled argument that it's none of the federal government's business and [prohibition] is not going to work anyway."

With what Balko describes as a "moral crusade" on the right and a "Nanny Statist mentality" on the left lined up against online poker's supporters, the push for legalization is bound to be a tough one.

"Your best hope here is to win over some libertarian-minded Republicans and the Democrats like Frank who still sort of understand the importance of civil liberties," say Balko. "But I think in general we're a long way from any kind of legalized regulatory scheme. I hope I'm wrong but I don't see it in the near future."

'Scary stuff'

A number of larger problems surround the legal issues currently of concern to poker players. Balko says that the government's proposed regulations for enforcing of the UIGEA, which summarized a few weeks ago, has some of the most disturbing possible consequences.

"This idea of deputizing financial institutions to start monitoring your transactions - that's scary stuff," say Balko. "They're basically asking your bank to become a cop to monitor everything you do."

Then there's the issue of state laws attacking free speech, such as the statute in Washington state that put the act of publishing hypertext links to gambling Web sites into the category of "aiding and abetting" a crime.

But most dangerous of all, according to Balko, is the use of violent force against nonviolent citizens to enforce the law.

As the author of the Cato Institute's Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, which profiles the use of SWAT teams and other dangerous tactics by police departments against American citizens, Balko is familiar with the local crackdowns on poker games across the country.

I asked him if there was much public awareness about the police using violent tactics against citizens playing low-stakes and charity poker games.

"I don't think there is," says Balko. "I think there would be a lot more outrage if people were more aware of it. We're trying to do our part [at Reason] to make people aware. We've written on the issue and produced a video with Drew Carey specifically on the American Legion outpost in Texas that was holding charity poker games and raided by a SWAT team. We're trying to draw attention to the issue."

Balko notes that the SWAT response that started with the War on Drugs has moved on not only to poker players, but also to others.

"We had a guy here in the D.C. area [37-year-old optometrist Salvatore Culosi] who was shot and killed in a SWAT raid. He was under investigation for nothing more than betting on football games with his friends. He had no prior criminal history and wasn't a violent guy.

"These SWAT raids are ridiculous. These are non-violent crimes, [involving] people who are getting together to have fun and are being subjected to these really excessive, overkill police actions."

Getting the word out

Balko says that the lack of public outrage regarding legal issues of importance to the poker community can be countered by getting the word out.

"I think the poker community could do a better job of publicizing when these raids happen," he says. "When we did the Drew Carey video… we got dozens of offers from lawyers to represent the people at the club who were facing charges pro bono. If you look at even non-poker sites like reddit and digg that linked to the video, the reaction was pretty one-sided against those sorts of tactics."

Most importantly, says Balko, the poker community needs to emphasize that it's everyday citizens who are being targeted in such raids.

"When people hear the words 'underground poker game,' they think of The Sopranos or some sort of shady dealings with armed guards at the door. I think it's important to get it out that these raids are happening to regular people who enjoy the game."

Even with all the forces aligned against the average poker player, Balko still thinks the game has a bright future in America.

"I think the good guys in this debate have the winning argument," he concludes. "I just think they need to do a better job of getting it out."

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