By Shari Geller
As expected, this afternoon Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas introduced HR 2366, the Online Poker Act of 2011, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The bill as presented has 11 original co-sponsors from both sides of the political aisle: Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), John Campbell (R-Calif.), Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.), John Conyers (D-Mich.), Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Michael Grimm (R-NY), Mike Honda (D-Calif.), Peter King (R-NY), Ron Paul (R-Tex.), Ed Perlmutter (D-Col.) and Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.).
Barton's bill is considered a direct response to the actions of the Department of Justice last April in unsealing indictments against the big three online poker sites catering to U.S. players which all but killed online poker in the U.S. As drafted, this bill would provide a regulatory framework that would resolve the gray area in which online poker has operated since the UIGEA was passed back in 2006.
"Poker is an all-American game, and it's a game that requires strategy and skill," Barton said in the statement. "Millions of Americans play poker online. ... We want to have an iron-clad system to make sure that those who play for money are playing in an honest, fair system where they can reap the benefits of their winnings. To put it simply, this bill is about having the personal freedom to play a skill-based game you enjoy without fear of breaking the law."
The bill deals only with the licensing of online poker and not other forms of internet gambling. It addresses concerns that have been raised in previous attempts to pass online gambling legislation about protecting consumers from fraud and keeping underage players from playing by setting up a licensing and regulatory framework for online poker operators to comply with. It also deals with past stumbling blocks such as respecting state's rights and giving Indian Tribes equal access to licensing.
One of the more interesting comments in the bill, of keen interest to the poker community, is the claim that poker should be treated distinctly from other forms of "gambling" as it pits players against each other, instead of against the house, and the outcome is based predominantly on skill and not chance.
All states are automatically opted into the licensing provisions, unless they opt out. The law prohibits the use of credit cards to make depositions and requires that if a site's license is revoked it must return player funds within 30 days. The bill provides that any site that wishes to offer online poker to U.S. players must apply to the State Agency in the state where the gaming servers are located for a license. All remote gaming equipment must be located in the U.S. In addition, states have the right to require the equipment be located within their states in order for them to license the site.
For the first two years, the only companies eligible for a license are casino gaming facilities (operating 500 or more gaming devices for the past five years), qualified card rooms, (licensed for at least 250 tables for the past 5 years), qualified race track (licensed for 500 or more gaming devices for the past 5 years, and $200 million or more bets on horse racing during 3 of the last 5 years before enactment), and slot machine or mobile gaming system manufacturers. After that initial two years, the newly-established Office of Internet Poker Oversight of the Commerce Department, may expand the list.
The Poker Player's Alliance had worked with Rep. Barton on the bill and the lobbying association went on record in support of today's news. "The bill reverses years of unclear policy and restores the freedoms of adults to enjoy the great game of poker from the comfort of their own home, with their own money over their own Internet connection," said former Senator Al D'Amato, chairman of the Poker Players Alliance. "Congressman Barton is recognized as one of the most skilled poker players in Congress. He is passionate about the game and he is passionate about freedom. We are confident his poker skills will translate well to the political game needed to push his legislation this year."