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  • Poker Fans bet against the House

    Tuesday, August 8th, 2006 by Mike

LAS VEGAS With the nightclub Tao swathed in red and black, music pulsated and go-go dancers gyrated on raised platforms along the wall. Everything from the “reserved” signs to the billiard table felt to the models’ Chinese-style dresses bore the same label: “bodog.com.”

The only thing missing was the online gambling site’s flamboyant founder, 45-year-old Canadian Calvin Ayre.

“He’d have girls all around him, and he’d be the life of the party,” said Ronn Torossian, an acquaintance familiar with Ayre’s celebratory ways.

The billionaire who graced Forbes magazine’s March cover decided to make himself scarce after federal authorities arrested David Carruthers, the head of rival BetOnSports, as Carruthers changed planes at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport on July 16.

A federal judge ordered Bet OnSports to stop accepting bets placed from the United States, and prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of $4.5 billion, plus several cars, recreational vehicles and computers from Carruthers and 10 other people associated with the Costa Rica-based gambling operation.

Around the same time, the U.S. House passed a bill that would ban most Internet gambling. Although the bill’s future in the Senate is uncertain, the issue loomed over the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas: Is online poker legal?

Tournament organizers and the U.S. Justice Department say no. The players, thousands of whom qualified in cash-paying Internet tournaments, say yes.

“I don’t believe any senior executive of any online gaming company is going to be going into the United States for the foreseeable future,” Ayre said. “It’s not just me. … I’ve talked to a lot of them.”

The World Series of Poker’s uncomfortable relationship with online gambling emerged in 2003, when an unknown accountant named Chris Money- maker qualified through a $40 online tournament and went on to win the $2.5 million main event, becoming the poster child for the wild popularity of online poker.

Advertising by poker sites on mainstream television exploded and then the Justice Department intervened.

In a June 11, 2003, letter, John Malcolm, a deputy assistant attorney general, warned the National Association of Broadcasters that the department considered Internet gambling illegal.

Major networks reacted by forcing online companies to create “dot-net” sites, on which poker was played only for fake money and no reference or link would be made to the “dot-com” versions, where billions of real dollars are wagered yearly.

Thus, PartyPoker.net, the so-called “World’s Largest Poker School,” has become an official sponsor of the World Series of Poker, its logo visible every time a flop hits the felt. PartyPoker.com, the reason for its existence, lurks in the background.

By some counts, about half of the 8,700 players in the World Series’ main event qualified via online satellite tournaments.

But tournament commissioner Jeffrey Pollack insisted that an online tournament isn’t what puts a player into the World Series it’s the $10,000 cash he individually pays for a seat at the table.

“I don’t talk to the dot-coms, I don’t,” he said. “Online gaming is illegal. Everything we do, whether it’s selling hospitality at the Rio or selling product placement with PartyPoker.net on our felt, is done with a sharp eye on the regulatory environment.”

The Rio is the hotel-casino hosting the World Series.

The televised tournament’s first day was even delayed by several minutes as organizers announced that anyone sporting a dot-com poker logo would not be allowed to play. About half that day’s field of more than 2,000 players flipped shirts inside-out, and workers circulated with rolls of black tape, covering any dot-com symbols they could find.

“Tape or not, I still look good,” said David Daniel, a 31-year-old player from Bristol, Tenn., who qualified by winning $10,000 in a $160 “double-shootout” tournament online and who was wearing a “PokerStars … ” hockey jersey.

The House bill that would ban Internet gambling except for horse betting and state lotteries is a bid to close a perceived loophole in the 1961 Wire Act, one of a series of laws meant to crack down on racketeering.

The Wire Act explicitly forbids businesses from using a wire communication facility to assist in placing bets on “any sporting event or contest.” But the law doesn’t cover other types of casino betting, a federal appeals court in New Orleans has ruled, leaving doubt whether prosecutors can shut down Internet poker and other games.

The Justice Department interprets all online gambling to be illegal. Other countries allow it, so companies have set up outside the U.S. but with easy access to U.S. players and computers.

The Poker Players Alliance lobbies Congress to stop the Internet gambling bill from passing the Senate.

Since the House passed the bill July 11, alliance membership more than doubled to 75,000.

Ryan Nakashima
associated press

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