Last Friday, the CEOs of several major online poker sites were charged with fraudulent banking activities, and their sites had to stop allowing gambling with real money from within the United States.
The vibrant and lucrative world of online American poker is suddenly at a standstill. I’ve played a few hands in that milieu myself, and I have friends who play successfully and often, supplementing their income significantly. A cottage industry has grown around the success of online poker, ranging from educational Websites to books to software that helps users track their play. The demise of online poker, if it sticks, will affect the ledgers of many people who have no direct affiliation with the sites in question.
Technically, the charges against the online poker bigwigs have to do with using dummy companies to circumvent regulations that would otherwise prevent them from making bank transfers with their profits. But does anyone think that’s the real issue? The deeper question is, Does online gambling deserve to exist?
Poker (unlike, say, roulette) is a game that gamblers play, not against the casino/Website, but against each other. The site profits by taking a small percentage of the winnings, also known as the “rake.” The rake doesn’t make it harder to win; it’s more of a maintenance fee. The point is, there’s nothing about online poker that’s institutionally exploitative. The players are arguably capable of exploiting each other, but nobody has an unfair advantage.
The battle for the legitimacy of online poker connects to one of my central criteria for whether the Internet will turn out to be good or bad for humanity, whether it will become a system that facilitates and enables true entrepreneurship, artisanship, and the independent generation of surplus value, or whether it will be just another system of power and control through which the rich increase their own wealth and further disenfranchise everyone else.
As Marx would say, one of capitalism’s central injustices is that ordinary people are separated from the “means of production.” You may have a valuable skill, but to generate income, that skill probably requires you to have access to resources that you cannot afford to buy or create yourself. For a worker to be in that position makes him ripe for exploitation. Workers who are capable of generating revenue independently, however, are harder to take advantage of.
The online world is full of edge cases in that regard. For example, a small company that advertises with Google AdSense and fulfills orders through Amazon’s warehouses seems to be empowered by those services, but is also ultimately at the mercy of those two companies and is, in a sense, merely their extension.
Online poker is (potentially) empowering to the individual player. If you’re good, the platform provides a means for you to generate income with nothing more than an Internet connection and a credit card, from anywhere on Earth (except, as of last Friday, from within the United States).
Conventionally endorsed gambling platforms such as casinos and lotteries, on the other hand, are generally exploitive and disempowering. And offline, gambling in America has long been compartmentalized by strange laws. It’s illegal in most states, but not in Nevada, and not on some Indian reservations or riverboats. Home games are common, but rarely are they broken up by law enforcement.
If there is any consistent message in the regulation of American gambling, it’s this: Gambling can never be a mainstream industry. If online gambling finds a way to stay legal, we as a society will be forced to re-examine that standard. After all, if I can play online from my apartment in Brooklyn, shouldn’t it be legal to build a casino in Queens?
The controversy over online poker sits at the nexus of many issues: what the Internet is for, whether America truly values online freedom, and the extent to which morality and commerce can be legislated across national, cultural, and technological boundaries.
Hopefully, the virtual tables will be open to real American money games again soon.
— Michael Bennett Cohn has a range of creative, business, and technical experience in online publishing. He is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/miconian.