Fear of PokerStars hangs over CA poker debate

Poker starsCalifornia gamblers’ dream of having legal internet poker in the Golden State suddenly seems closer than ever, thanks to proponents’ decision to include in pending legislation a de facto subsidy of at least $60 million annually to struggling racetracks. But the picture is murkier than it may first appear.

Assembly Bill 2863, introduced by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, would make California the fourth state after New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware to legalize some Internet poker websites. The measure, which passed the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee on a 19-0 vote last week, says the sites can only be operated by Indian tribes that already have casinos in California.

The connection between the financial struggles of California horse-racing tracks and online poker is based on track owners’ arguments that they have been financially devastated by the rise of legal online horse betting and by the proliferation of Indian casinos in the Golden State since 2000. That’s when voters approved a state constitutional amendment making it much easier for tribes to get casinos approved. While the racing industry is declining in California, it still has some pull in the Legislature.

But there is a split in the media over how much of a breakthrough online poker advocates truly achieved last week. Coverage in the niche media that specialize in gambling was less likely to see the committee vote as a huge step toward online poker’s legalization than the mainstream media.

OnlinePoker.Report.com challenged the description of some of California’s wealthiest tribes as being “neutral” on AB2863 simply because they had not taken an unequivocal public stand on the measure. In particular, OPR reported, Agua Caliente and Pechanga representatives privately express broad skepticism about Gray’s bill. 

Some CA tribes want to block online juggernaut

Their biggest objection involves what in the online poker world is known as the “bad actor” debate: whether online poker sites with questionable histories should be firmly banned from partnering with casinos in setting up new state-specific online sites.

PokerStars is the site most consistently depicted as a villain, which led to clauses in a Nevada law meant to keep it out of state-approved online poker sites. Founded in 2001, the world’s largest online poker site was the biggest fish targeted in the U.S. government’s 2011 crackdown on online betting. The next year, it settled its legal fight with the Justice Department by paying $700 million without admitting wrongdoing.

Now PokerStars has quickly established itself as a juggernaut in New Jersey with its pokerstarsnj.com site. In 2014, it lined up partners in California: the Morongo Tribe and the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

Unless other tribes get language in AB2863 that provides hard protections against a PokerStars-Morongo-San Manuel partnership, the legislation may end up being opposed by most of California’s richest tribes, whose generous campaign donations have given them considerable clout in Sacramento.

There is again a gap between mainstream and niche media coverage of this issue. Instead of being about keeping “bad actors” out of states, gambling news sites depict “bad actor” clauses as being about market protectionism.

One of the world’s best known law professors, Harvard’s Lawrence Tribe, agrees with that description and could work as a lobbyist for and counsel to PokerStars if a state law attempts to keep PokerStars from partnering with California tribes.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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