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Who holds the cards in the online poker legalization debate?

28 Mar 2011

By Howard Stutz
LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The issues surrounding a potential legalization of Internet poker in Nevada became both clearer and more complicated in the same day.

The crux of the debate?

Supporters of Assembly Bill 258 want Nevada to legalize Internet poker, opening the state to a new industry that would provide thousands of high-tech jobs, $1.8 billion in economic impact and upward of $60 million in new tax dollars.

The state's largest casino operators, however, believe Nevada should wait for the federal government to bless the activity, opening online wagering nationwide.

Another in a long line of bills was introduced in Congress two weeks ago that would establish federal licensing and regulation of Internet poker. Other states, such as Iowa and California, are weighing Internet poker measures.

"Nevadans can't wait 18 months for Internet poker to be federally legalized," said Assemblyman William Horne, D-Las Vegas, the sponsor of AB258. Horne worries that jobs and tax dollars could end up elsewhere if the legislature fails to pass the bill.

Horne is up against the Nevada Resort Association, MGM Resorts International, Caesars Entertainment Corp., R&R Partners and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. All oppose AB258.

Reid, D-Nev., called Horne last week and asked that certain language be removed from the bill. Quietly, Reid may have suggested Horne shelve the bill. He favors federal legislation over a state approach.

But Horne also has an influential supporting cast.

Former Assembly Speaker Richard Perkins, ex-gaming regulators Scott Scherer and Randall Sayre, financial expert Jeremy Aguero, public relations consultants Reggie Burton and Kendall Tenney, and the Washington D.C.-based advocacy group Poker Players Alliance are working for AB258.

Alliance Executive Director John Pappas said the organization favors federal enactment. He said the Nevada bill, however, contains many of the elements the Poker Players Alliance has sought in state and federal proposals.

"This bill represents the best possible approach to intrastate regulated Internet poker," Pappas said. "It is also geared to maximize economic growth in Nevada."

Last week, South Point Hotel Casino and Spa owner Michael Gaughan threw his support behind the bill. Winning the backing of another major casino operator would certainly help AB258.

The influential player in this game of hold'em is PokerStars. The Internet company, headquartered on the British Crown dependency Isle of Man, is bankrolling the effort -- with good reason. PokerStars controls almost 50 percent of the online poker market and has a multimillion-player database.

PokerStars brought Vanessa Rousso, one of its many sponsored professional poker players, to Carson City last week. Rousso's testimony enthralled the men on the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Just Google her name and you'll see why.

PokerStars also announced a deal with Wynn Resorts Ltd. on the same day as the hearing. The companies are supporting passage of federal legislation favoring Internet poker and would then launch an American-based online poker website,

PokerStars Chairman Mark Scheinberg said in a statement that the company has long believed the U.S. could regulate Internet poker in the same manner, or even better, than the activity has been governed in Europe.

"This alliance (is) a critical step in that direction," Scheinberg said.

PokerStars is playing two hands in this tournament. It may be holding all the chips.

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