Making America safe for online poker

If you play poker on the Internet, you already know about the squeeze the U.S.

If you play poker on the Internet, you already know about the squeeze the U.S. government is putting on Internet gambling. Wired News reports that a law passed last September, which just went into effect, makes financial transactions between online casinos and American banks and credit card companies illegal.

The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) has forced Internet gambling to come to a grinding halt in the States. But, like Prohibition in the 20's, people have found ways to get around the laws.

"There was mass panic when the legislation came out," says "Boy Wonder," a inveterate online gambler who asked to be identified only by his screen name because he fears the IRS might target him. "(The Act) scared away the novice."

There are some major gambling sites that have banned American players, but others accept pre-paid VISA debit cards or phone cards sold through foreign middlemen that allow Americans to pay online casinos. Some players open offshore bank accounts, leaving some to wonder if the law is useful.

"You've created a whole criminal culture," says former New York Sen. Al D'Amato, who is the chairman of the Poker Player's Alliance, a 500,000-member grassroots group of poker enthusiasts working to overturn last year's law. Instead of controlling and licensing the industry, D'Amato believes, UIGEA has only created the conditions for shady operators to flourish outside the reach of law. "Just like Prohibition," he says.

There is concern among some members of Congress that the UIGEA gives the government too much control over the personal liberties of citizens in a digital age. In response to this law, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has recently introduced a bill that would re-legalize online poker and gambling and regulate the industry. Frank's proposal could save face for the U.S., as the UIGEA come under criticism from the international community.

The World Trade Organization ruled that America's online gambling ban has unfairly closed U.S. markets to offshore casinos. The WTO said that the U.S. allows online betting on horse racing, which has an exemption from UIGEA. The ruling by the WTO paves the way for future lawsuits. Stay tuned.