I think Wil Wheaton (who has become quite the online renaissance man: his retrospective reviews of Star Trek: The Next Generation are hilarious) is right that recent changes in US law, along with some prominent law enforcement, mean that online poker in the United States is going to be impossible for the foreseeable future. I know at this point I wouldn’t put money in an online poker site even if they reassured me that there was a safe way to make a deposit and a guarantee of being able to withdraw my funds.
Some time ago, I did try a bit of online poker with real money. The good thing about playing that way, from my perspective, wasn’t the prospect of making money (I eventually lost my small initial stake, but it took a long while) but simply that once the money is real, the quality of play goes up a huge amount. I learned a lot from doing it, and was a lot more confident about my play when I was in Las Vegas recently. A lot of players were (and are) convinced that there’s something dubious about the shuffle algorithm at many major online sites, but I really think on balance that this has to do with the fact that you see many more hands online, and that there are more players who will foolishly chase cards to the river, and so hit what seem like improbably miraculous hands from time to time.
I’ve been thinking about this a bit recently with casinos in offing for Philadelphia. They won’t have table games, just slots. I really don’t get the logic of this choice. I frankly don’t think we should have them at all, but if you’re going to have them, why just slots? Casino poker is the one thing I would play, partly because I find poker endlessly fascinating, but also because the house has no interest in whether I win or lose, just in whether the hands get played at a good clip and the pots are large enough to make a good rake. If you’re concerned at all about the impact of gambling on vulnerable players, slots don’t seem like a good choice: they’re a game that the house wins by a large and rigid margin. (If you’re concerned about the profits of the casinos, on the other hand, they’re obviously a premium feature.)
Gambling is another of the areas where the policy framework for sinful industries seems conceptually incoherent to me. That’s one thing when you’re dealing with a crazy-quilt inheritance of old statutes, and another thing when you’re introducing something. Pennsylvania typically seems to be in a rush to maximize its incoherence. Gambling will now join the state’s alcohol policy, which is breathtakingly freakish and dysfunctional. (For the uninitiated: 1) wine and liquor are sold only in state stores which cannot sell tonic water, club soda and so on; 2) beer is sold in privately-owned stores but can only be bought by the case, not the six-pack; 3) unless you buy a six-pack of beer to go from a bar at a high premium. In the not-too-recent past, Pennsylvania also stationed police officers to try and keep state residents from buying alcohol over the border into New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and other states.)
I can see a better case for regulating online poker, but I’m not sure how much sense that makes when American municipalities and states are now routinely turning to gambling (casinos, racing parlors and lotteries) as revenue instruments. Of course, that is one reason why online poker is a big target: because the big players in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, and a number of Native American reservations object to the way it devalues brick-and-mortar play.
Oh, well. None of this takes away from my fascination with poker itself, which in the context of games and play strikes me as easily one of the four or five most interesting and potent games ever invented by human beings. It’s vastly more compelling to me than chess, for example, partly because it so explosively interweaves probability, skill and insights into the consciousness of other human beings.