OLYMPIA – Is Internet poker just a 21st-century twist on the friendly game played around a kitchen table or “the crack cocaine of gambling”? That’s the question the Washington Supreme Court was asked to decide Thursday.
Online gambling is illegal in Washington, and should remain that way, Assistant Attorney General Jerry Ackerman said, because it can’t be regulated and monitored like casino gambling. Internet sites can’t prevent minors from playing, or cut off compulsive gamblers, he said.
But Lee Rousso, who is challenging the law, said the ban is “illegally protectionist” because it helps local gambling operations by banning out-of-state or out-of-country operations. Internet gambling sites are regulated, just not by the state, he said.
Some justices seemed skeptical of the legal distinction the state makes between games played in a casino or licensed card room, and on the Internet.
“Aren’t these the same games that are played in Indian casinos?” Justice Jim Johnson asked at one point.
They’re the same card game, whether played in casinos, at the kitchen table or the computer table, replied Thomas Goldstein, an attorney for Poker Players Alliance. The state can’t ban online shoe sales to protect in-state shoe stores, but that’s what it does with card games. “This case is about interstate commerce; it is not about gaming,” he said.
Ackerman said it’s not the same game, but a video form in which people sitting anonymously in their homes can lose more money, faster. “Internet gambling is the crack cocaine of gambling because it makes it so easy,” he said.
But Justice Gerry Alexander said the state already allows gambling “almost any time you step out of your house,” and any concerns about the speed and ease of Internet gambling may be more of what he called a generational thing.
“The argument could be made about e-mail … we should go with the U.S. mail and take our time, writing letters,” Alexander said.
The Supreme Court doubled down on gambling cases Thursday, also hearing the appeal of a case that questions whether an online betting service that holds the money for a fee and pays the winners of bets is really an illegal bookmaking operation. George Telquist, an attorney for Betcha.com, said it isn’t, because losers can “welsh” on the bet and get their money back without fear of any reprisal worse than being put on the site’s “dishonor roll.”
“There’s no kneecaps at stake at Betcha.com, there’s no organized crime,” Telquist said.
But Ackerman said just because the debts can’t be enforced doesn’t make them legal.
After the hearings, about 75 members of the Poker Players Alliance, many wearing red T-shirts proclaiming “Poker is not a crime,” gathered on the nearby Capitol steps and insisted they had a right, in the words of alliance chairman and former U.S. Sen. Al D’Amato, to “shuffle up and deal.” The law against online poker playing was “contemptible,” he said, and designed to protect tribal casinos.
Phil Gordon, of Newport, Wash., a professional poker player, said the state has no business regulating Internet gambling: “What I do on my own computer from my own living room is my own business.”
Laura Bangerter, of Puyallup, brought her daughters, ages 3 and 1, to the rally in a stroller. She said she doesn’t play but her husband, a high school teacher, does and wins enough that she can stay home with the children.