Earlier this week I intended to write a post un-packing the PPA response to Black Friday and why it has been woefully inadequate. My post was going to start from the premise that, of all people and organizations, the PPA should have seen this calamity coming and been prepared for it. Instead they appeared to be caught with their pants down.
Unfortunately things got away from me in the crunch of other obligations. In the meantime many other voices took up that torch, to the point that my post was redundant. Consider this short list:
Bill Rini: The PPA is Pathetic; I Don't Get the PPA
Wicked Chops: The PPA Still Doesn't Get It: Reshaping the Online Poker Regulation Message
Grange95: The PPA Meets or Exceeds Expectations
But today PPA Chairman Al D'Amato authored a jaw-dropping Op-Ed that appeared in the Washington Post. It showed that the PPA is *still* muddling the message and still stuck on the wrong arguments to make for regulated online poker.
Let's start with the headline (which, I will concede, may have come from WaPo and not D'Amato himself): "Make online poker legal? It already is."
As a practical matter, people in the poker community know that a case can be made that online poker isn't illegal under current U.S. law. Certainly that's the position that PokerStars and Full Tilt took while they continued to operate in the U.S. post-UIGEA. But that's not the issue that online poker players really want addressed. We want the government to license, regulate and tax the game so that it exists in a black-and-white area of federal law, with strict government oversight akin to that existing in B&M casinos. Doing so would create jobs and would remove online poker from the legal twilight zone that it's inhabited for the last five years.
The headline of the Op-Ed confuses this issue right from the outset. If I were to read D'Amato's headline with no knowledge of the poker industry prior to last week's indictments, I might easily think that the status quo is fine, that indeed there must have been some shady business going on for the Big Three to have been indicted. So right away we have uninformed readers potentially taking the wrong message from D'Amato's piece.
[And if WaPo was responsible for the headline... well what does that say about what WaPo editors took away from the Op-Ed?]
D'Amato spends the first four paragraphs of the Op-Ed telling a few unrelated anecdotes about his own experiences with poker. A sharp reader can see that he's trying to set up the "poker is a skill game" argument that the PPA has been repeating ad nauseum for five years and, I might add, taking up too much column space to do it.
Five paragraphs into the piece we get the first useful piece of rhetoric. D'Amato writes,
"This is an attack on Internet poker and American poker players like me. Through these strong-arm tactics, prosecutors think they can ban Internet poker. Instead, they are making millions of Americans victims in an attempt to make online poker illegal without the support of legislators or the public."Great! I like this paragraph a lot. D'Amato is attempting to frame the facts in a light that is beneficial to his main argument, which is that Americans should be free to play government-sanctioned and government-regulated poker on the Internet. Instead, the actions of the government have had an opposite and direct effect on average Americans. Beautiful.
Unfortunately, D'Amato doesn't explain why the game should be regulated in language to which the Average Joe can relate. Instead of making prohibition comparisons, llibertarian arguments and delving into the benefits of regulation for all parties involved -- consumer protection for players, revenue generation for governments, job creation for average Americans and bright line regulations for operators -- D'Amato starts in on the "game of skill" argument. Poker isn't gambling; it's a game of skill. Thus it should be legal.
This argument has been the PPA's standard tactic for the last five years. What has that tactic accomplished? According to Grange, more harm than good. I won't repeat Grange's arguments; just go read his well-written post and know that I agree with everything contained therein.
Back to D'Amato. In that one brilliant rhetorical paragraph of this piece that I referenced above, D'Amato suggested that the indictments were an attempt by the Justice Department "to make online poker illegal without the support of legislators or the public." But when he does finally come around to making a quick, weak libertarian argument in favor of online poker, he leads it by contradicting his own earlier position. "No one, including [Attorney General Eric] Holder, suggests that it is illegal for an individual to play poker on the Internet," D'Amato writes.
Well, which is it? By shifting his ground on this argument in the space of three paragraphs, D'Amato calls into question the credibility of his entire piece.
It isn't until the ninth(!) paragraph of the piece that D'Amato offers a clear, concise statement of what action the government should take:
...it is time to clarify federal law: Online poker is legal. Congress should license and regulate Internet poker and allow Americans to play the game they love on trusted, safe online Web sites without fear that the FBI will come knocking.Unfortunately, by the time the reader reaches this clear and concise statement, he or she has had to wade through the muddled masses of the previous eight paragraphs. And D'Amato still leaves out the job-creation, revenue-generation and consumer-protection benefits of regulation.
The fact is that while 50 million American may play poker at one time or another, far fewer play online. I've seen estimates that range from 3 million to 15 million. The 15 million number at the high end of the range represents only 5% of the total U.S. population. Nobody is going to convince the other 95% of the population to remotely care about this issue by stating that poker is a game of skill -- especially when it's obvious that, in the short term, chance plays a large role. However, if you frame the argument in terms of jobs, tax revenue, and consumer protection, more people are going to sit up and take notice.
To date the PPA has refused to explore this alternative (and in my opinion more compelling) line of argumentation in favor of online poker regulation. If they remaining unwilling to do so then maybe it would be best if the PPA said nothing at all. Right now they're not helping the cause.