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Tribal Officials Wary as US Online Poker Pushes for Federal Approval

Indian tribes have had a brick-and-mortar lock-down monopoly on legalized casino gambling and poker in many states for many years now. So you can certainly understand why tribal officials currently benefiting from being the only game in town are concerned that legalized online poker in the United States will drastically hurt their business. After all, if the federal government in the United States adopts a pro-online poker policy and passes legislation to that end, the same person who used to have to make a special trip to a physical Indian tribal casino can now fire up their laptop, smartphone or home computer and play wherever they like, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week without leaving their home.

And that is exactly what online poker players like 24-year-old Alex Fitzgerald do each and every day. The Seattle Central Community College dropout recently won more than $2.5 million playing poker online, and is one of the hottest rising names in the online poker community. But he currently plays in Costa Rica. He said that because the United States Department of Justice ran him out of the country on Black Friday, April 15, 2011, he can only live in the United States if he decides to give up, “… the only job that has consistently fed me since I was a teenager.” He said he is also concerned that he will never be able to “live in my country of birth again.”

The DOJ did reverse their opinion slightly in December of 2011, allowing each individual state in the US to dictate their own online poker policy, regulate and tax it. And seeing substantial cash on the table that would help at both the local and state levels, while also providing access to an activity that their constituents already enjoy, Nevada and Delaware have both legalized online poker in those two states. And with their current brick-and-mortar casino business take standing at $28 billion a year, it is easy to see why many US Indian tribes don’t necessarily want the US federal government, or even states individually, to legalize online poker play in the US.

Trying to make everyone happy is going to be tough, but there is a powerful presence pushing to do exactly that. Some would argue that the nation’s most powerful senator is Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. He is currently working with multiple Republican and Democratic politicians and lawmakers to push through legislation that would both protect the interests of federally recognized Indian tribal casinos, as well as allow the millions of Americans who play online poker currently to do so legally in their own country. While it is not currently illegal for a United States citizen to play online poker for money, it is illegal for a company to operate an online poker facility within the boundaries of the United States. Since that ability has now been allowed to be handled at the state level, changes are in store.

But as Reid and others have pointed out, fragmentation and a lack of standard policy across multiple states could create problems for online poker players, and headaches for regulators in those states that decide to legalize online poker. Reid argues that the bill he has been working on for over a year would provide a safe and regulated environment for American poker players, while also protecting the interests of casino owning Indian tribes, and allow for revenues to be dispersed on both the state and federal levels. The positive spin for US online poker players? This discussion was not even possible a year ago, and with two of the fifty states already moving rapidly to shuffle up and deal online legally for the first time in America, the reality of online poker in the United States is now a matter of when, and not if.