Las Vegas Sun

November 22, 2017

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The Policy Racket

Poker’s backers in Congress have no hand in the game

Interestingly enough, most of Congress’ biggest players when it comes to legalizing online poker don’t actually play the game.

Rep. Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, appears to have taken up the mantle of poker in the House out of a love for the game.

“I play Texas hold ’em,” he said. (Appropriately enough.) He’s also humble about his abilities. “My father was a great poker player; I’m a mediocre poker player.”

But Barton doesn’t shy away from ribbing last year’s chief Internet gaming champion in the House, Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank, for his comparatively hands-free approach to pushing for a poker bill.

“If Barney Frank has pocket aces, and I have 2-7 off-suit, probably Barney’s going to beat me,” Barton said last week, explaining to a group of reporters why poker is a game of skill. “But if I’m a better player than Barney, over 50 hands or 100 hands, I’ll probably take him.”

“I don’t play poker,” Frank replied. “I would get way bored before 50 hands.”

“Just give me your money, Barney,” Barton offered.

Rep. Shelley Berkley isn’t exactly a poker shark. But she’s got a background in casinos — her dad worked in them and so did she — and makes a point of being an avid and visibly hands-on poker fan.

The World Series of Poker is taking place at the Rio, and “I do the shuffle up and deal to get them started,” Berkley said.

But past that, there aren’t a lot of big poker fans at the front lines of this sort of legislation.

“I don’t play poker,” Nevada Republican Sen. Dean Heller said this month, although he fully supports making the online form of it legal. When a Sun reporter expressed surprise that a Nevada senator and supporter of legalizing it online would refrain from the game, he laughed, and said: “You think Harry Reid plays poker?”

No. Suffice it to say, Harry Reid, as big of an online poker booster as he is, does not play the game.

And actually, neither does Republican Rep. John Campbell of California, who with Frank has drafted a full legalization of all forms of online gambling. Poker makes up more than 90 percent of the betting games played online.

But maybe playing poker isn’t what it’s all about: After all, the classic image of a bunch of lawmakers deciding policy over a card table in a backroom filled with cigar smoke can’t even play out on the Internet.

“When we make something legal, we make it optional, not mandatory,” Frank said.

“That’s true,” Barton acknowledged.

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