Thursday, February 7, 2013

This Too Shall Pass

Musing about the state of online gambling and how it relates to potential players in the USA.

Unfortunately the link below has expired. I hate that. The essay is printed below in it's entirety!

This Too Shall Pass

This, Too, Shall Pass

You live in the USA, “land of the free and home of the brave.” You just returned from a fantastic 4-day trip to Las Vegas and, like all those fellas on TV, you sat down at a poker table and to your surprise you not only won a few bucks but you really enjoyed yourself. Now, back in Utah, one of the few states in the US that does not allow any form of gambling, you realize that your hopes of recreating this experience will have to wait for your next vacation.

But, what about all this talk of online gambling and online poker rooms? Sounds like a good idea to be able to relax in the comfort of your own home, wager a few dollars, and enjoy the challenge of a friendly card game.

That kind of naiveté has landed many Americans in precarious situations these days. The facts are sobering:

  1. Online gambling and online poker in particular are illegal throughout the United States. Pushing the envelope and playing under the radar, many Americans have participated in online gambling in the past, figuring that the issue was too vast and too inconsequential for the Federal Government to get involved. That all changed on April 15, 2011, Black Friday as it is known among online poker aficionados, when the US Justice Department closed down the major online poker outlets used by Americans, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker in particular, seizing their assets and branding every recreational online poker player in the US as a criminal.

  1. Experts say that federal approval of online poker playing is a matter of “when” not “if” and many groups, including the Poker Players Alliance, are working diligently toward this end although all efforts failed miserably in 2012.

  1. A few states, Delaware and Nevada specifically, have decided not to wait around for the feds to get off their duffs and are proposing their own rules for online play within their borders. Both states passed legislation to this end in 2012. Scenarios like this run the risk of creating 30 or 40 different sets of online gaming regulations in various states adding to the confusion rather than solving a problem.

So what options does our friend in Utah have? Should he just lock his front door and sneak onto his computer in the middle of the night and register for one of the hundreds of online poker sites that seem to be available? Not if he’s smart.

The US Justice Department has done the only thing that makes sense to them as far as Americans playing at foreign online poker sites is concerned. They have “followed the money” like so many other Justice Department crime investigations and they have squelched funding at the source. In order to make deposits to or withdraw funds from a foreign online casino you need a bank or a credit card company which is, these days, merely an extension of a bank. In this group you should also include quasi bank entities like Pay Pal and MoneyBookers (Skrill). The US government has warned these financial institutions, although they haven’t made their threats very publicly, that any transactions concerning gambling businesses outside the USA are in danger of being confiscated and the financial brokers involved are in danger of being closed down. Scary? You can bet on it.

Many online poker sites advertise that they will accept American players. The challenge is getting your money into an account and the even bigger challenge is getting it out. In most cases your credit card deposit will be rejected. Attempts to use debit cards often result in failure since most debit cards cannot be used outside the USA. If you send a check, which most online casinos are not crazy about, it will never be cashed. If you win money where can they send it? Not your bank? And if they do mail a check, it often will not arrive for months.

This kind of mess drives many Americans nuts. Going to Canada or Mexico and setting up a residence and a foreign bank account seems like a huge undertaking and is only an option for the most serious online gamblers, those who make a living at this sort of thing. The average Joe will not go through all that trouble.

So, they try. A lot of guys go through the motions and try to register. Many of the popular online sites that advertise heavily in the US are based just across the border in Canada outside Montreal. Run under the auspices of the Kahnawake Mohawk tribe, hundreds of online operations have been licensed. Unsuspecting potential US citizen gamblers turn over to them all sorts of personal information including bank account numbers, credit card numbers, email addresses, and phone numbers. Few are aware that people like Joseph Tokwiro Norton, former grand chief of the Kahnawake Mohawk tribe, are lurking on the other end of their computer. Mr. Norton owned two online gambling sites and was involved in two of the biggest online cheating scandals ever. Ultimate Bet and Absolute Poker were owned by Mr. Norton and he was the chief architect of what has been called the biggest heist in poker history where unsuspecting players forfeited over $23 million dollars to his schemes and crimes.

So, the casino/site names change and the game goes on. Under the Kahnawake blanket you now find sites like Cobalt Poker, Real Vegas Online,, Casino Sparkle and about 150 more sites. The casual admonition to “play at your own risk” should be taken very seriously.

And then there’s Lock Poker! Americans attempting to log onto this site and deposit money via a credit card or a debit card (neither will work, by the way) should not be surprised to get a phone call from their bank saying that their card number has mysteriously appeared on a purchase originating in China! This site too is part of the Merge Poker Network which is associated with, you guessed it, the Kahnawake Mohawk cartel.

What to do? Although this solution is not ideal, it will suffice for most recreational online poker players and gamblers in the US until the laws change.

  • Find a site that you can trust. Zynga Poker is a good one if you own an iPad or an iPhone.
  • Do some research and weed out the obvious scams. Many European online casinos that specialize in sports betting also have poker and casino software available and their reputations are good among the sports betting crowd.
  • Set up an account (not one that requires your credit card, debit card, or bank account number). Doing this is usually free.
  • Then, gamble with free, play money to your heart’s content!

I know that for many this seems childish and undignified but gambling, even playing poker, is about creating a false environment anyway. When you sit down at a brick and mortar casino black jack table do you put your hard earned dollars on the table? Not usually. Instead you use “chips” which merely represent money. The casino psychologists know you will be freer and less anxious about losing chips than you would be about losing dollar bills. Playing online with fake money is very similar. Using fake money you can practice, hone your skills, and prepare for the day when you can change it up into real money if you choose.

It’s not ideal but no one has ever gone to jail for gambling with fake money. Not yet anyway!

By all means, be patient. The time will come, sooner than you think, when unfettered, legal, hassle-free online gambling and poker will be available to Americans just as they are to so many other players around the free world.


Q and a with John Pappas, Executive Director of The Poker Players Alliance

A phone interview I did a few months ago (almost two years ago now!) with John Pappas of the PPA.

Q and A with John Pappas, Executive Director of The Poker Players Alliance

This link too has expired so the report on the interview is below:

(Some of this actually came true!!)

The Poker Players Alliance, John Pappas, and You

To say that John Pappas is passionate about poker, particularly online poker, is an understatement. To suggest that Mr. Pappas is not the ideal individual to represent the rights of all American poker players is not to know the man at all.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Poker Players Alliance (PPA) or its mission, the important things you need to know are that John is the Executive Director of this advocacy group and that the PPA is dedicated to, in his own words, “. . . establishing favorable laws that provide for a safe and regulated environment for Americans to play poker.”

While the PPA is concerned primarily with former and future online poker players, they do not shy away from supporting the interests of brick and mortar poker initiatives when necessary as is evidenced by the PPA’s recent support of legislation in Maryland that would allow the establishment of poker rooms within the state.

The existence of the PPA precedes the most pivotal event in the lives of all American online players, Black Friday (4/15/2011) as it is not so affectionately known. Yet in Mr. Pappas’ memory, that day was the “worst day of my professional career.” On that day the United States Department of Justice seized the assets of the world’s two largest online poker sites, PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker, and closed down their websites to American players. The affect was immediate and devastating for individual poker players. Recreational online poker players, and John Pappas readily admits to being one of them, lost access to their small stakes and bigger fish, many considered to be professionals, were out five figure sums. Only recently have deals been struck that would begin the process of returning embargoed accounts to former players. Nevertheless, the action of the DOJ essentially branded every American online poker player as a criminal by association and, for the most part, their days of leisurely competing with others in online poker games and tournaments were over.

At that point in time the work of the PPA changed abruptly from a mission into a crusade and their full time presence in Washington, D.C. seemed like the right place to be.

One of the PPAs biggest challenges is changing the minds of non-poker players since the card playing public already shares their mind set. Among the lessons to be learned is that poker, online or face-to-face, is unlike other games found in a casino environment. Poker is predominantly a game of skill, not “predominated by chance,” a common legal definition of gambling. John Pappas knows this to be true; former United States Senator Alphonse D’Amato, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the PPA, knows this to be true; and U.S. Federal District Judge Jack Weinstein knows this to be true since that was his ruling in the recent United States of America against Lawrence DiCristina. 

Academics and long-time hard nosed poker players also know this to be true. Fully 75% of all Texas Hold’em poker hands never make it to the point where players “show down” their cards. The skill is in developing strategy, betting, knowing the odds, reading your opponents and making correct timely decisions. Chance, although present, plays a minor role in this game of wits.

Another characteristic that sets poker apart from other casino games, a characteristic that Mr. Pappas feels is essential for the public to understand, is that poker players compete among themselves not against casino odds. Casinos or other establishments that sponsor poker games are reimbursed through raking pots or through taxes on seats. Essentially a poker player pays the room, or the online venue, to play. This unique characteristic tends to lessen the “David vs. Goliath” feeling that many people experience standing before a slot machine that is eating up their social security check. Everyone around the poker table is on equal footing. They all have the same opportunity to win money. If you play better, more skillfully, you usually win, especially over the long haul.

Mr. Pappas is no stranger to poker games. Growing up in Arizona in a politically active and government savvy family, John always thought he would pursue a life in politics. As a teenager, he and his friends regularly trooped over to the house of the only guy whose parent’s would tolerate their noisy competitions and played poker until someone had to go home. Like most young poker devotees, they had never heard of Texas Hold’em and instead played endless games of dealer’s choice like Night Baseball, Cincinnati, and Five-Card Draw. After college, John moved to Washington D.C. and took a job with his home town Congressman, who was then the sub-chair of the newly formed 9/11 Homeland Security Committee. After honing his skills with the D.C. in crowd for six years he turned to the private sector where one of his first clients was the fledgling PPA. He was slowly but inevitable drawn into the cause and has been with the PPA ever since.

These days John doesn’t play online anymore for the same reasons most other Americans avoid online poker play but he can be found on occasion at a small Las Vegas poker tournament or looking to double his stake at a cash table.

At this point in time John sees the plight of online poker players in America as “not great!” For those who choose to wait for the federal government to make a move toward legalizing online poker play in the U.S. there currently is only a very dim light at the end of a very long tunnel - and the PPA is holding the lantern. For those whose patience has run thin and who feel impelled to make the choice to get involved with an online casino/poker operation based outside the country, the waters are deep and shark infested.

For John Pappas both of these unfortunate scenarios are why the PPA is working so hard toward their goal. Horror stories of players trying to deposit money in foreign poker accounts, or equally terrifying stories from those who have succeeded in getting their money in but cannot now get it out, are easy to come by. Players who have had their credit or debit card numbers stolen only to turn up in China will gladly share their experiences with you. Safe, legal, regulated online poker play in the United States will end these kinds of abuses immediately. Looking at the legitimization of online poker play as a crime deterrent isn’t so far from the truth.

The recent pre-election online survey run by the PPA among its 1.2 million strong membership revealed little that John Pappas and his staff did not already know. Fully 90% of the respondents categorized themselves as politically aware, registered to vote and likely to cast a ballot in November. Their political affiliations are remarkably evened out across party lines with approximately 31% registered as Democrats, another 31% registered Republicans, and 36% identifying themselves as independent or at least undeclared at the time of the survey. In response to the question about willingness to stray from a party’s line over a poker related issue, the vast majority responded in the affirmative. Poker issues in and of themselves can win or lose votes.

John’s position is clear. “Politicians should be catering to them (poker players).” If you want the vote of a poker player then you will need to come down on the side of legalizing and legitimizing online poker play for Americans. It’s that simple.

No one has a crystal ball to look into and see the future of online poker playing in the United States but the outcomes are limited among a few - some obviously much better than others. In the near future, unless Congress acts very soon, the online poker landscape will look pretty much as it does today - a few states jockeying for the lead in bringing online poker to their local areas, most Americans continuing to be wary of online venues seeking their funds, and a few special interest groups, like John Pappas and the PPA, out there beating the bushes for support and making their mark. Within the next four or five years, again if Congress does not act, the number of states and localities offering online poker opportunities will increase and in all likelihood a number of sets of rules and procedures will develop independently. This kind of experimentation can be good - proving that online poker can exist outside of criminal activity, cheating, and money laundering. It can also be bad if the state run games end up with some kind of “hobbled uniformity,” as outgoing Nevada Gaming Control Chairman, Mark Lipparelli, predicts.

The simple fact of the matter is, and John Pappas is eminently aware of this, that a good online poker experience needs numbers. In order to justify a good business plan and in order to provide the best from a consumer stand point, online poker sites need to offer adequate opportunities for card players to get involved. Signing on to a site and finding only a few tables available and having to wait long periods of time for competitors will not cut it. The audience needs to be vast and unless an online poker site can be opened up to the entire country and by extension to the entire world success may be hard to come by.

That’s part of John Pappas’ vision. It’s part of the PPA’s vision. And it’s the ultimate goal for every poker player in the United States of America.

Robert Cancellaro
October 2012

To those of you who have viewed this very meager blog in the past few months I apologize for not keeping it up. Life has a way of grabbing hold and tying you up.

And, I will not be posting those "stolen" articles I mentioned in my introduction. Here's the reason - I did a little research, found the person who posted them, prodded until I found out where she got them from, explained to her that they were stolen, and encouraged her to take them down which she eventually did. In the process she offered to "pay" me to rewrite them so she could then post them on her very inadequate "gambling" website which I refused.

Lesson learned? Anything on the internet is likely to be stolen at some point in the future, or has already been stolen.

For any of you who would like to read some of those articles (formerly stolen) they are legitimately up on a website based in Eastern Europe called Brain Betting. The address is:

I'm not sure how long they will be there because the fellow who runs the site, a friend and paying customer of mine, is off designing a new site which he has asked me to write for. It has been a few months in the process however and I'm not even sure that the new site will ever be finished.

I will do my best to post a few musings here in the near future.