Online poker's transition hand

Posted: May 31, 2011

Online poker will rise again in the United States, but it's going to be a while - maybe two years or more - before it returns to the level it was before "Black Friday."

The shape it will take is up for grabs. Maybe casino giants such as Caesars or MGM will become dominant providers. Or maybe an organization such as the World Poker Tour. Maybe states will decide individually whether to allow Internet games within their borders. Or maybe Congress will enact a national law.

At some point, it will be legal for poker fans in America to send money to a website, play online, and collect their winnings.

The poker world has been buzzing since the federal government shut down the three biggest online sites on April 15, accusing them of violating federal law by manipulating banks into processing billions of dollars from American players. Those sites - Full Tilt Poker, PokerStars, and Ultimate Bet - are based overseas and still offer cash games to players from other countries. American players can compete on them only for play money.

"Ultimately, this is short-term bad for poker but long-term good for poker," said Dan Harkenrider, managing partner of the DivisionOfPoker.com radio show, which airs on several ESPN affiliates and TribLive Radio. He predicted government regulation of online poker in America.

The shutdown's impact is widespread. The World Series of Poker, which starts Tuesday in Las Vegas, is expecting fewer players because of the loss of online satellite tournaments.

Harkenrider, who has done political consulting for legalized gambling and once was director of sales for Playboy Poker, said television shows such as High Stakes Poker and Poker After Dark were in danger because the online sites might pull their advertising. Many poker publications face the same threat, he said.

Poker pro Jon Stein of Derry, Pa., who runs 18 websites offering poker information but not games, said his traffic had dropped dramatically in the last six weeks. He said he had lost half his advertising revenue since the crackdown.

Josh Brikis, 31, of Murrysville, Pa., who placed 55th at the 2010 World Series of Poker Main Event, said he had had to give up playing as many as 12 tables at a time online and play at the much slower casino pace. According to rankings available through his website, www.joshbrikis.com, he has won more than $700,000 online as brikdog24.

The American Gaming Association, which represents the casino industry, said more than 1,000 sites still offered real-money online gaming in America despite the crackdown on the big three. The association is pushing for federal regulation of online poker.

Poker pro Keith Kaufman, 39, of Bethel Park, Pa., said he still played online, although not as much as the 10 to 15 hours per day he once logged. He said he was moving this weekend to Las Vegas as a full-time poker player primarily because of the experience he gained online.

"I can see Internet poker coming back bigger and better than ever," he said.

Chris Moneymaker, the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event champion who is widely considered the inspiration for the Internet poker boom, predicted legalization might take three or four years.

"Knowing how slow our government works and how long it takes to get a bill passed, it'll be a while," said Moneymaker, who is affiliated with Full Tilt Poker and played frequently online before the crackdown as Money800. "We're all flying blind."

Kaufman and Brikis said online play allows players to see far more hands and opponents than live games do. Brikis said an online player can see as many hands in a day as a casino player sees in a month.

Harkenrider said practicing poker in a casino is much more expensive than online.

"If you deposit $100 in an online account and play 10- to 20-cent games, you can last three or four months even if you lose 60 percent of the time," he said.

Industry experts estimate the potential annual revenue from legalized Internet gambling in the United States at nearly $80 billion. Regulation would open that to taxation. That's a good reason to bet the absence of real-money online poker is temporary.

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