The changing face of U.S. poker: From forbidden fruit to as American as apple pie

July 16, 2013, PokerSites.Com  

Back in the day - when poker was primarily played in the Wild West by men like “Wild Bill” Hickok and his ilk - all disputes in the game were generally settled at gunpoint; in Wild Bill's case, not in his favor, either. Not much has changed some 140 years later, except that now the men bearing guns are the Feds, and the only “shots” heard 'round the world have been indictments and massive cash forfeitures from cheats and con men.

How times change

Until 2013, of course, when the whole underbelly of poker – somewhat seedy, raunchy, slightly unsavory roots – suddenly morphed into something far more socially palatable, as online poker finally went legal and regulated, at least in Nevada and soon to come, in New Jersey. With presumably the rest of the country to follow in the not-too-distant future; after all, with a downed economy still reeling to get back on its feet, it will be hard for any state to avoid the obvious funding that legal Internet poker can pour into its state coffers.

To better understand what the future may hold, let's do a quick recap of the not-too-distant past.

From online to over the line

It's hard to believe that it was just 16 years ago that online poker came into the world. Planet Poker carved its spot in poker history as the first, with Paradise Poker following quickly behind. By 2001, PokerStars - now the largest Internet poker room in the world - was offering real money games online, and by 2004, Full Tilt was created and promoted by some of the top players, including well-known pros like Howard Lederer, Phil Ivey, Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, Mike “The Mouth” Matusow and Jennifer Harman.

And with a few stumbles on the Department of Justice's steps, it looked like the slightly shady, unregulated version of U.S. Internet poker could continue forever; until April 15, 2011 – quickly dubbed “Black Friday” in the poker community - brought it all crashing down like the uncemented house of bricks it actually was.

The online giants - PokerStars, Full Tilt and Absolute Poker – had simply gotten away with too much for too long, and had developed a sense of invincibility that had them snubbing at U.S. banking laws, as outlined in the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006. In a nutshell, UIGEA made it illegal for U.S. banks to accept payments from Internet gambling sites, and to get around this reality, the big sites all figured out various ways to circumvent the law, from creating “skin” businesses through which to launder payments to actually bailing out some small banks in exchange for them accepting the sites' financial transactions.

Black Friday was the day the Feds shut down the big three players, and froze all their assets. The Golden Calf at whose feet so many of the poker profligate had worshipped came tumbling down, and with it, many a professional online player lost their livelihoods, while millions of recreational players lost a pastime they had come to take completely for granted. Some pros moved to Costa Rica or Canada to keep playing, but for the vast majority of Americans, a groundswell to make poker legal, regulated and secure, right here at home, gained a huge head of steam.

Signed, sealed and delivered

Not surprisingly, Nevada (in a neck-in-neck race with New Jersey) has been the first to go legal online; Stations Casinos first, with their Ultimate Poker site, and probably before summer's end, Caesars Interactive Entertainment's WSOP-branded online site.

The big sticking point for the land-based casino industry has always been how to make the Internet work for, not against them; now that brick-and-mortar casinos have realized this is a way to enhance, not detract from, their brands, almost everyone has come on board. (Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas Sands being a notable exception; Adelson stands vehemently opposed to Internet gambling, claiming it has brought down land gaming revenues in Europe by 20 percent).

With any visitor to Nevada now being able to play online poker as long as they remain within the Silver State's borders, and with all twelve of Atlantic City's casinos applying for online gaming licenses, it's clear that overall, the future for Internet poker and online casino gambling, in general, is pretty bright.

Finally, U.S. players won't have to slink around, wait months for cash outs, or have little recourse for cheats or site snafus, as all sites will now be strictly regulated by each state's own gaming commission, as well as taxed for both players' and online casinos' revenues. A comparison of factors such as deposit methods is listed at PokerSites.com, with the U.S. online player in mind.

Ironically, PokerStars, originally at the forefront of Internet play and still a major site (more so now that it has swallowed up Full Tilt as part of its post-UIGEA plea deal with the Department of Justice), is still figuring out how to come back legally in the U.S. Banned from Nevada as a site for at least 10 years as punishment as part of its “bad actor” clause, it is finally working out details with Atlantic City's Resorts Casino to get on the bandwagon when New Jersey unfurls its online casinos, most likely in November.

Waiting in the online gaming wings are Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania and, after much internal bickering, California. Yes, the Golden Calf is slowly being rebuilt; but this time, Uncle Sam will be enjoying a nice filet, and probably a couple of tenderloins as well.

What's changed? What turned poker from a back-room, cigar-puffing, white male-only enclave into the diverse, co-ed, socially acceptable game (or sport, depending on who you ask) it is today? And can poker survive having a good, clean, respectable reputation? How will the game change now that Joe and Jane Average, who might have been afraid to invest their funds online10 years ago, now perceive a clean game with legal oversight and felony convictions for cheaters?

In short, can poker survive social respectability? While it's still a bit early in the game to say a definitive “yes,” the odds seem to be in favor of the deck hitting online poker purveyors square in their now-legal faces.