Poker players say legal deck stacked against them

Some call it luck. Players call it skill. Neither on May 15 could change the fact that it’s illegal to play the game of poker for money online in the state of Washington.

  • Monday, June 2, 2008 1:44pm
  • News

Poker Players Alliance Grassroots Director Drew Lesofski

Rally on day of decision at Kent courts

Some call it luck. Players call it skill. Neither on May 15 could change the fact that it’s illegal to play the game of poker for money online in the state of Washington.

Washington poker players lost a hand at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent when King County Superior Court Judge Mary Roberts ruled to uphold a 2006 law that made online gambling a Class C felony.

More than 50 members of the Poker Players Alliance, called the PPA, gathered alongside prominent poker pros Barry Greenstein and Andy Bloch outside of the Justice Center after the hearing Thursday. Wearing red “POKER IS NOT A CRIME” T-shirts and holding up signs with messages like “END POKER PROHIBITION,” they were there in support of Renton attorney Lee Rousso, the poker aficionado who started the legal battle against the constitutionality of the law.

Introduced by PPA Grassroots Director Drew Lesofski, Rousso, who also acts as the state PPA director, spoke to supporters at the rally about his arguments and how he thinks the issue will ultimately be decided by a higher court.

“We may have lost, but I got my day in court,” he said. “I hope that a higher court will view this differently.”

Rousso filed the lawsuit last year in response to a 2006 revision to an existing state statute that added online gambling to the list of electronically transferred gambling activities banned in Washington. The law also makes online gambling a Class C felony punishable by up to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000. No cases have been prosecuted.

Lesofski called the law’s consequences “draconian punishment,” summarizing the stance of the PPA, made up of more than 1 million members.

Rousso’s lawsuit challenges the constitutionality of the law. He claims the state has no jurisdiction over online gaming, which occurs between individuals from around the world and through foreign companies. He also argued the law was hypocritical and that it discriminatorily protected state-licensed casinos and lotteries.

In her ruling, Judge Roberts said Rousso had not proven the law unfairly protected gambling interests inside the state at the expense of interests outside the state. She also cited the state’s historically staunch prohibition on gambling.

But Rousso encouraged supporters at the rally not to give up. He called Gov. Christine Gregoire, who signed the 2006 legislation in question, “an enemy of the game of poker,” but expressed hope for a new governor more friendly to the game in November. He said candidate Dino Rossi has publicly expressed his love of the game.

“It’s incumbent upon you to be a proud poker player … to tell your politicians how you feel,” Rousso said.

Poker pros Greenstein and Bloch took their turns at the microphone after Rousso, continuing the argument against the criminalization of online poker.

“This country was founded on a set of rights, and among those rights is the pursuit of happiness,” said Bloch, a Harvard-educated attorney who decided instead to make his living at the poker table. “For some people, getting online and playing poker is happiness. Who is the state of Washington to say that we can’t do that in the privacy of our own homes?”

Seattle resident Jae Hughes, who was at Thursday’s rally, said she used to play poker online because she couldn’t afford to play at casinos. She says she still plays for fake money, but it’s not the same because players don’t play the same way. Without money to lose, “all-in” bets and “bluffs” are much more prominent and cloud the strategy of the game.

“People just don’t play right,” Hughes said. “America is supposed to be the land of the free, but right now we’re in a new prohibition.”

Contact Daniel Mooney at 253-437-6012 or dmooney@reporternewspapers.com.

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