Minnesota online poker players breathed a sigh of relief this week when state officials backed off of a request for Internet service providers to block access to Web gaming sites.
Six weeks ago, in a first-of-its-kind effort, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Division (AGED) sent letters to 11 ISPs requesting the providers block some 200 sites that allow various forms of Internet gaming. In the face of a lawsuit from the Interactive Media Entertainment and Gaming Association (iMEGA) and mounting public pressure, state officials sent letters to those same providers withdrawing the previous request.
Upon first hearing of the state’s anti-gaming push, Minnesota players were shocked and frightened, says Edina native David Webb, a professional poker player who plays both online and live. After consulting with the Poker Players Alliance (PPA), a lobbying group, Webb and players in his peer group began researching the national and state law.
“The more we looked into the actual laws, people started calming down a bit,” said Webb by phone on his way to the Bellagio casino in Las Vegas. “But before I did the research, I was pretty panicked. It’s almost like being at risk of being fired from your job, because … it puts your livelihood at risk.”
No distinction regarding skill vs. luck
In response to the proposed ISP blockages, prominent Minnesota online players such as Mike Schneider of Minneapolis — who is widely considered one of the best players in the world at the poker variant Limit Hold ’em — publicly mused about making a move out of state to avoid violating the law. Poker is widely held to be a game of skill, distinct from other casino games. State officials, though, make “no distinction” between poker and games of pure luck, said Andy Skoogman, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety.
Minnesota officials had cited the Federal Wire Act of 1961, a pre-Internet law designed to regulate sports gambling, to bolster their claim that online poker players in Minnesota are violating the law. This strategy didn’t appear likely to withstand legal scrutiny.
“The approach we tried didn’t work,” said Skoogman. “We need to go for smaller victories at this point.”
For now at least, the momentum is on the side of online poker players. The mood among Minnesota’s professional players was celebratory, though many of the online pros were more focused on their own play at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas than on the legal battle.
Letters withdrawn, case dismissed
The state’s Alcohol and Gambling Enforcement Decision “has agreed to withdraw” the notice letters it sent in late April, according to the new correspondence. “Whether or not iMEGA ultimately would have prevailed in court is unknown,” wrote John Willems, AGED director. “Notwithstanding, the AGED has agreed to withdraw the notice. As a result, iMEGA has agreed to dismiss its court action without prejudice.”
The news inspires a sense of relief mixed with vindication, players say. “The PPA has had a bunch of victories lately,” said Webb. “In a lot of people’s minds in Minnesota, this is another small step forward.”
Jason Senti of St. Louis Park is one of those. Reached by phone after being eliminated late in a World Series of Poker tournament, the professional player said he was happy to see an official statement from state government backing off.
“It’s very exciting as a citizen … to see something work, where enough people write to their congressman, and something gets done,” he said. Like many Minnesota players, Senti worked with the Poker Players Alliance to apply pressure against the proposed ISP blocks.
To Webb, the news is an expected step, and he anticipates the state’s enforcement arm backing off.
“In my mind, [pursuing action against online gaming] accomplishes very little,” he said. “This should be very low on the agenda of items they’re pursuing. I think they’ll realize that. So I don’t think this will necessarily be a lasting fight — but if it is, I’m confident we’ll win.”
Players not inclined to rest
Senti, though, doesn’t think poker aficionados will get to rest on their laurels. The question of Internet poker’s legality is a complicated one that varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
“We’re in a gray area, because [online poker] isn’t expressly legal in the U.S.,” said Senti. “The fight isn’t over, especially not on the national level. We know what we’re fighting for, but we don’t have any clear answers as to how this is going to shake out.”
To Minnesota administrators, there is no gray area. The state’s position has been consistent and clear. Minnesota has been opposing online gambling since 1995.
“We still believe online gambling is a serious issue,” said Skoogman. “We’re going to take a step back and assess the situation before we act — but I don’t think we can wait very long.” Skoogman said the enforcement division’s next move would probably be at the state level, and could involve pushing legislation or more actions at an administrative level.
This hard-line approach seems to have a bit of tension with the language in the final paragraph of Willems’ latest letter, which includes a declaration of hope that involved parties will find “common ground.” With the state arguing that all online gaming, even skill games like poker, violate the law — a position that professional poker players will never accept — is there any room for compromise here?
The state’s Skoogman frames the issue as one of consumer protection, and says that ensuring existing gaming sites are well-regulated might be the lone source of shared interests.
“At the very least, that might be a place of compromise,” he said. “We do believe [online gaming] is illegal, but at the very least we want to be sure these sites are on the up and up.”
For Senti, the principle of the matter has some distinctions from the practical matters at hand. In his ideal world, Senti says that adults would be able to gamble in the privacy of their own homes — whatever their game of choice. But he would also “absolutely” be for a solution that expressly made poker legal but left out other, more chance-oriented games.
“If the first step is to get poker legalized, and differentiate it as a game of skill,” he said, “I’d be very happy to accept that.”
Jeff Shaw is a freelance writer and former web editor of City Pages.