Friday, Aug. 29, 2008 | 2 a.m.
Sun Expanded Coverage
Not long after Congress passed a ban on Internet gambling, PR man John Pappas knew he had to be here at the Democratic National Convention.
Pappas represented online poker players. Their ragtag Poker Players Alliance had been stunned by Congress’ midnight approval of the ban late in 2006.
Internet gamblers had been powerless to block the bill. They were only loosely affiliated. They often knew one another only by their online nicknames.
But they did have computers and they had passion. Over the following 18 months, they learned quickly about the nexus of politics and influence.
Tuesday night, this once odd lot of online gamblers transformed Coors Field, home of Colorado’s major league baseball team, into a poker palace, and they invited the very targets of their ire — lawmakers who had banned their gambling. In short, they put on a poker face.
As the second night of the convention closed with Sen. Hillary Clinton’s speech, the club room overlooking the ballpark looked like early Vegas. Hundreds of delegates, members of Congress, celebrities and fans of the game showed up.
Pappas and others made sure it was an A-list-ish affair: Ben Affleck settled in for a hand alongside the powerful Democratic chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, Rep. Barney Frank.
“What better way to get our message delivered than to be right at the conventions when there’s all this politics and policy?” said Pappas, who has left his day job to run the Poker Players Alliance, which claims 1 million members. It will host a similar event at the Republican National Convention next week.
Religious and family groups despise Internet poker as a modern social ill that wrecks marriages and depletes checkbooks. As online gambling grew into a wildly popular $15 billion industry in just a few years, the religious right batted it back.
Social conservatives had great sway in Congress during the waning days of 2006, as Republicans pushed moral issues in an attempt to retain power. When the online gambling ban went through, it was an exercise in traditional political power.
What happened next was not.
Online gamblers formed a vast network online, nearly overnight, built around a single issue.
Not long ago, that kind of organizing took months, if not years — and a fair amount of seed money. Today, as the poker players demonstrated, a group with modest resources but decent Internet hookups can organize swiftly.
Some say the group’s grass-roots campaign helped oust longtime Republican Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa from office. Leach had authored an anti-online gambling bill.
More recently, poker players swarmed the Republican Party’s platform-writing Web site, protesting a plank opposing Internet gambling.
Pappas knew the online work could take the group only so far. If poker players wanted the attention of political leaders, they needed to do something big, and public.
He had attended political conventions before (he’s a Republican) and was familiar with the wining and dining. But this year, the number of events has exploded. Nevada Democratic Rep. Shelly Berkley, for example, received 1,800 invitations.
So to make sure he drew a crowd, Pappas went big: Coors Field. And he went for star power. When Affleck asked to join, the poker players knew they had an ace. Other celebs included Seth Myers from “Saturday Night Live,” comedian Sarah Silverman, TV personality Montel Williams and actor Richard Dreyfuss.
Five days before the big night, the group’s public relations company (run by a former Bush administration spokesman) got a call for help to handle the flood of media interest. The PR chief boarded a plane to Denver.
Technically, Poker in the Ballpark was a charity tournament. That was essential because under new ethics rules, lawmakers can attend events hosted by organizations or corporations only if a charitable donation is involved.
Players made a suggested $500 donation, a little less if they didn’t play, and the money went to Paralyzed Veterans of America. Pappas expects to raise $100,000 for the group from the events in Denver and St. Paul, Minn.
But let’s get real.
Although the Poker Players Alliance is willing to spend $30,000 for a party to send money to vets, the goal is to get Washington to make it legal to gamble from a laptop.
As Myers cracked: “With everything going on in the world right now, I just think that’s the biggest issue. We solve that, then we can move on to all of these other, smaller things, like the economy, the war.”
The players have a somewhat more serious view.
Marc Schtul, an attorney in Denver who forked over $500 to play, said, “If I want to play online poker, it’s my business. I’m a Republican but I might not be for long.”
The alliance does not want to be partisan, Pappas said, but that’s getting more difficult because of the Republican opposition.
Florida Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler, a friend of online poker who has sponsored legislation that would help legalize the game, said having the group show up in Denver is significant.
“I think the more their story is told, the better off we’ll be in the Congress developing widespread support for the issue,” Wexler said.
Nevada Berkley also breezed through, noting, “They really got their act together.”
Yet, Rep. Jason Altmire, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said he came for the veterans, not the poker players.
As for overturning the online gambling ban? “We’re going to take a look at it.”
About 1 a.m., hours before the tournament would wrap up, Pappas surveyed the scene.
“Success,” he said. “Since we’re at a baseball stadium — we hit a home run.”