Group Play

Group Play
Poker and the Digital Felt

Robert Marks | 26 Feb 2008 12:49
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Although there are players like Phil Hellmuth and Phil Gordon who have their own lines of poker supplies, the big rush for the new celebrities was online. With a field of dozens of now-famous players, poker sites scrambled to sign as many players as possible for lucrative celebrity endorsements. While the professionals used to earn a living "rounding" the tables and winning hands in the high-stakes games, it became possible for a pro to attach his name to a website, live off the endorsement money and never hit a card table again.

But, for those who kept to the card tables, the location of the games had changed. Since most players preferred to stay at home and play on the internet, the high-stakes poker games in Vegas began to migrate online. And professional players followed the money.

"If I was to start again, I wouldn't ever play live poker," says Negreanu. "You can play five low-limit games at a time and build a bankroll far easier than hitting a cash table."

The real world of poker was changing - while the offline tournament circuit remained strong, the cash games that had been the staple of the profession for decades were drying up. After all, why would a beginning player go to Las Vegas if he could play at home?

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While online poker not only helped save the game, but also changed it forever, it would be the real world that dealt the game a massive blow.

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The October 13, 2006, signing into law of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) by President Bush forbade credit card companies in the United States from conducting transactions with online gambling companies and sent poker sites scrambling to find loopholes. Even over a year later it's still too early to tell for certain, but the law may have dealt poker a crippling blow.

"All live tournaments will take a huge hit," says Negreanu. Indeed, since poker sites now have to build work-arounds in order to take in money and pay it out, the massive influx of players into live tournaments through online qualifiers has been endangered as the qualifiers become fewer and farther between.

The new law raises other questions, none of which have easy answers. Many of the poker sites located outside of the United States; to what degree do they need to follow the law? And where does American territory end and the international begin on a medium that traditionally defies any such categories?

"Why should it be illegal for me to go online, which is not the United States, and play poker from Amsterdam?" demands Negreanu.

These issues have already been the source of at least two international lawsuits. Both the European Union and Antigua have filed claims for damages after the trade bans impacted the online casinos located in their territories. Both followed the World Trade Organization's March confirmation of its ruling in January 2007 that the new law had violated American treaty obligations.

The true impact of the UIGEA is unlikely to be as simple as many professionals fear. While the online cash games may be endangered, most, if not all, of the sites offer games with play money, including freeroll qualifiers. Since no real money changed hands in these games in the first place, the new law has little impact on them, even while it decimates the cash games.

One likely result is the return of the high-stakes game to the real world. Now that cash games are harder to find online, dedicated players will need to return to the real world, where poker is not illegal. Andy Beal's $20 million game may very well prove not to have been the swansong of the high-stakes game on the live felt, but instead the herald of far more to come.

Robert Marks is s a freelance contributor to The Escapist.

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