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Don't Give Online Poker the Royal Flush

Well, it's official: the United States is back under prohibition. Overzealous morality police have once again outlawed a widely enjoyed vice. And once again, millions of normally law-abiding citizens are ignoring the dangers of arrest and prosecution to partake in this pastime. However, the targeted activity isn't alcohol. It's poker.

Government officials seem poised to launch a major effort to curtail online gaming. They shouldn't bother. Online poker isn't going anywhere. Instead of making card players into criminals, they ought to regulate the industry to protect consumers and bring one of America's most popular games out of the shadows.

It's been illegal to play online poker for real money since government started regulating the Internet. This hasn't stopped millions of Americans from creating accounts with Web sites like Party Poker and Poker Stars. In fact, online gaming is a $1.5 billion dollar industry. Every day, thousands of dollars are being won and lost without a hint of government regulation.

It's is if Prohibition booze kingpin Al Capone were advertising in radio and print.

The popularity of poker doesn't even resemble a secret. Major online gaming sites are advertising during primetime television. Sure, they're promoting their play money sites, but the moment you create a free account you're bombarded with advertisements for the real money games. It's is if Prohibition booze kingpin Al Capone were advertising in radio and print.

Heck, government regulators don't even need to turn on the television to find these bold criminals. They can mosey on down to The Strip in Las Vegas, where the 2006 World Series of Poker is taking place this week. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 8,000 people anted up $10,000 to take a shot at the championship title. A majority of those playing won their seats online. If the government wants to crack down on Internet poker, why don't they go and arrest these admitted criminals?

The government is starting to talk about getting tough. The bill H.R. 177, designed to get serious about stopping online gaming, recently passed the House and is being considered by the Senate. The proposed law would tighten regulations of credit card transactions and increase the penalties for placing wagers online. Considering the unwillingness of Congress to seriously regulate oil companies and other corporate donors, it seems ludicrous to target the millions of ordinary Americans who enjoy poker.

Legislators claim they are concerned that terrorists and other bad guys could launder money through online poker. That is a legitimate concern. But everyone who plays poker online shouldn't be cast as a criminal because of a few bad apples. Plenty of crimes are committed with guns, but Congress doesn't seem in a hurry to completely outlaw firearms. The potential for serious illegal activity is another reason that regulation, instead of prohibition, is a better choice for policy makers.

Another legitimate concern is the social costs of gambling. Opponents of online gaming point to numerous stories about people, mostly young, who lost thousands of dollars playing poker. Gambling addiction is a serious issue, but once again the solution isn't to outlaw everything. After all, it's easy to buy lottery tickets or book a flight to Las Vegas. Why should online poker be singled out?

Besides, making online poker legal could actually help people with gambling addiction. Right now, compulsive gamblers face another barrier to finding help: the potential that they could be arrested for having an addiction. By regulating online gaming, Congress could remove some of the stigma associated with this troubling disease. A possible jail sentence shouldn't create an additional barrier on the road to recovery.

Ultimately, online poker is just like any other hobby that people spend their money on. Personally, I enjoy live poker about a thousand times more than playing online. But no one should be surprised that online poker is so popular. After all, we get everything from news to cooking tips online. What's wrong with allowing people to play one of the most popular card games in the world? Congress should reconsider it's recent legislation and design a response to online gaming that makes sense.

Ben Waxman studies political science at Juniata College. He can be reached at benwaxman@gmail.com.