By Wendeen H. Eolis
Down the boardwalk from the recent World Series of Poker Circuit event in Atlantic City, a troop of online poker forum contributors—“ARGERS”—were whooping it up at the annual ATLARGE banquet. The dinner was sponsored by PokerStars. The keynote speaker was John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance.
Online Poker Chatters Turn Out for Live Poker Party
A fan of online poker forums, PokerStars has long been a supporter of such events. This year—without any US-facing operations, however, there was no obvious “ROI” for the online poker behemoth in bankrolling the ATLARGE dinner gala. “Chalk it up strictly to an act of kindness,” says one PokerStars associate who fears going on the record with PPN.
ARG events feature live meetings, networking, tournaments and cash games for online poker forum participants around the country. In addition to ATLARGE, the others have names like MARGE, FARGO and BARGE, the mother of them all. Pappas’ gig at the ATLARGE banquet was the hand-picked choice of Stevan (Goldie) Goldman, the organizer of the annual east coast “ARG” gathering at the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.
“Argers” Are Sociable
My date for the ATLARGE dinner was longtime fearless friend Nolan Dalla, an avid poker forum contributor and a semi-regular at the ATLARGE festivities. He was in town to preside as the head communications honcho at the WSOP Circuit Event at Caesars. He could not resist an invitation to the dinner after Goldman assured him it was OK to trot into the proceedings with yours truly in tow. We were both downright curious as to exactly what Pappas might have to say about the state of affairs of online poker in America and the PPA’s continuing plans to advocate for poker players’ rights.
It was a fun and interesting evening, with animated discussion over dinner followed by Pappas’ remarks, and then adjournment to an after-dinner notorious pink chip mixed games poker table with the ATLARGE crowd. By the end of the evening, even a previously confirmed skeptic of online poker forums would be hard put not to rethink their positive value.
Pappas Is Educational
For his part, Pappas’ remarks were refreshingly free of hysteria but replete with facts that make a dramatic case for PPA membership, if you care about the future of online poker. His speech resonated as an honest, clear “state of the union” presentation that described the chaotic landscape and the relevance of the PPA in taming it.
A new hard look at this organization is instructive. To its considerable credit, the PPA is increasing its visibility as a serious player-based organization, rocking the boat and shaking the leaves and the shoulders of recalcitrant politicians, as heated legislative debates on the future of online poker continue.
The takeaway from a two-hour interview with Pappas is crystal clear: the PPA is in transition, committed to the goal of unquestioned legitimacy as a genuine and capable grassroots organization of poker players intent on securing the rights of adult Americans to play poker online in America.
Pappas speaks like a proud parent about the dedication of his staff and the accomplishments of the organization, particularly noting the recent kudos bestowed upon the PPA by PC World Magazine as an online campaign that is “sparking political change.” Pappas crows over the PPA’s success in harnessing social networks, like Twitter and Facebook. He chuckles over frequent references made by members of Congress about a barrage of communications from poker players.
PPA and Their Patrons
Over the past several years, PokerStars has been among the PPA’s most significant patrons. Currently it is the primary funder, a fact the PPA now discloses, even though these donations are provided via payments forwarded from another organization, the Interactive Gaming Council.
The funding of the PPA did not begin with such transparency. For years, the big gun online poker entrepreneurs responsible for most of the funding of the PPA carefully avoided calling attention to their contributions and influence on the organization’s efforts. The evolving policy of fuller transparency seems to be strongly supported by the PPA Board of Directors as part of the metamorphosis of the organization.
Once the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) became law in 2006, the PPA immediately sought to overturn or overhaul the federal statute so as to exempt poker from its clutches. UIGEA was designed to ban online bets by American players.
The PPA’s position has matured over the years to emphasize advocacy of federal legislation that provides for licensed, taxed, and regulated online poker. In addition, the PPA now boasts a real infrastructure in all 50 states, making it a force to contend with as a credible grassroots player-based organization throughout the country.
PPA and Pokerstars
Pappas does not mince words in responding to questions about the organization’s ties to PokerStars. He says, “We are not lobbyists for PokerStars and we are not a grassroots organization for them. Not once have I brought an executive from PokerStars to meet a member of Congress, but I have brought dozens of poker playing constituents who want the freedom to play online. He asserts, “And thanks to PokerStars the PPA has been able to advocate on behalf of the players.”
Initially an outside consultant to the PPA, Pappas went in-house as the organization’s vice-president of government affairs once former New York Senator Alfonse D’Amato was elected to the titular chairmanship of the PPA in 2007. A few months later, Pappas became executive director.
From time to time, D’Amato takes center stage as master of ceremonies to wind up the online poker loyalists and to further their cause on Capitol Hill, but it is Pappas who holds the true PPA operations baton. Both men are politicos and poker aficionados versed in the ways of power poker, though D’Amato is known to be more talkative about his talents as a winning player in all manner of poker games.
D’Amato Has Taken Down Big Bucks from the PPA
D’Amato has a bifurcated contract for his services; he is chairman of the board of the PPA and his lobbying firm is also paid as consultants to the organization. According to a member of the IGC in the know (IGC transmitted the relevant donations to the PPA), the aggregate compensation topped $700,000 per annum in the early days. Without going into specifics, Pappas insists the total compensation has been adjusted downward over the years.
The value of the former Senator’s services has been hotly debated in the poker world. Critics have pointed to failure in getting a favorable bill passed. It should be noted, earlier this year, longtime anti-gambling Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) asserted publicly, “Quite possibly something can be done.” He was reportedly referring to discussions with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) on the development of suitable online gambling legislation that might allow for online poker.
D’Amato Wins High Praise from Pappas
Meanwhile, Pappas responds to any rolling of the eyes over D’Amato’s performance with unequivocal praise. He opines, “The poker community is getting a lot out of Senator D’Amato’s chairmanship, and I believe he will continue to play an important role in the future of the PPA and the future success of this issue.”
Pappas declined to speculate on exactly how D’Amato might fit into the picture if PokerStars at some point were to cut off funds to the PPA, as have other online sites no longer holding online gaming interests in America.
Linda Johnson and Greg Raymer Are Pros
The PPA was founded near the end of 2005, when PartyPoker’s owners saw the coming of vigorous legislative efforts designed to topple the rapidly growing online poker business. Popular poker industry leader Linda Johnson was asked to take the reins as the PPA’s first chairman. In 2007, she stepped aside as Chairman to make way for D’Amato to assume that post, while remaining ever since an active board member.
Johnson says, "I originally got involved with the PPA because there was a need for an organization to fight for the rights of all poker players.” The WSOP bracelet winner and former CardPlayer publisher emphasizes, "We have a lot of work left to do since we still don't have the same rights to play poker in our homes that people in most other countries have.” This year, Johnson’s longstanding credibility with the wide range of players and lawmakers she visits around the country is further enhanced by her election to the WSOP Hall of Fame.
Greg Raymer, winner of the 2004 main event of the WSOP is a board member of nearly as long duration as Johnson. Formerly a member of the Pfizer legal department, Raymer is a highly regarded public speaker on poker strategy and equally at ease in the political maelstrom. He mingles with players on both sides of the aisle and engages easily in a room full of CPAC Conservatives at their yearly conference in Washington.
Special Talents of Muny and Fleming
Pappas says of his current board, “We have cut the fat and added people who could serve specific functions.” Pappas has paid close attention to the forums, drawing from their ranks to the PPA board both Richard Muny and Patrick Fleming.
In describing Muny, who serves as the vice president of player relations, Pappas states, “Whether it is his daily action plan, or responding to questions from players and members on the forums and email, Rich is undoubtedly the biggest reason we have been able to become a true grassroots organization.” Muny notes that he is a moderator on two sites that hold 20,000 posts between them. He says, “The forums are home to very critical thinkers who are highly motivated to advocate for the game of poker.”
Patrick Fleming serves as the legal eagle and as PPA’s Litigation Support Director. He explains his diverse role as “three basic responsibilities: providing general legal information important to the poker community, providing specific legal information directly to PPA Premium Members regarding their individual legal issues related to poker … and providing direct legal assistance to lawyers and litigants in cases that raise issues which have a national impact on poker.” Pappas quips, “If this were the Godfather, he would be my Tom Hagen.” The PPA solicits lawyers interested and knowledgeable about poker issues for referral lists but does not take responsibility for in-depth vetting of their credentials and legal expertise.
Pappas concludes, “The heart and soul of the PPA is the poker playing community, and in particular the PPA members who are our real grassroots advocates. He nails the new evolving message: “If not for an organized association of players the only messengers to lawmakers are companies who are looking to pad their bottom lines. And in this political environment, that is not a very inviting messenger. The future of online poker in the U.S. needs the PPA and we are doing all the right things to ensure we can best represent the players while also helping to establish a U.S. industry."
Editor’s Note: Wendeen H. Eolis is CEO of Eolis International Group, a legal consultancy with more than four decades of specialized expertise in the gaming industry including her duties as a senior advisor on gaming issues to NY Governor George E. Pataki. She also has been a leading activist in the poker industry for 25+ years following her achievement as the first woman to cash in the main event in the WSOP. She can be reached at email@example.com and she can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. This article and related research is part of material planned for use in connection with other writings of the author.