After three years of seemingly making political progress toward legitimizing the activity, everything came crashing down on Black Friday, and 2011 went in the books as the year online poker went dark across the United States.
Looking back, it could have been worse. Don't get me wrong, the fallout was brutal. The DOJ indictments forced the major online poker sites out of the country and left many U.S. players without large chunks of money and their main source of income.
When the indictments struck, many people worried that the controversy could also stop cold any possibility of licensing and regulating Internet poker in the United States in the near future. It stood to reason that politicians concerned with re-election wouldn't want to go near an issue tainted with federal indictments.
This did not happen. To the contrary, the bottom falling out of online poker reinvigorated the player community to bombard representatives on Capitol Hill with phone calls, emails, Facebook posts and tweets. The American Gaming Association and Nevada casinos seized on the sudden absence of reputable sites for Americans to play on by pushing harder than ever to lead a domestic-based online poker industry.
The result is that, entering 2012, it's the first time I think federal online poker legislation passing by the end of the year is a real possibility.
I wouldn't say the odds are favorable. It's still a long shot. There is a lot left to overcome.
One big issue is that it's an election year, which shortens the congressional season and always makes it difficult to move controversial legislation.
That's why the rebranding of Internet poker legislation in 2011 is so important. The bill Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.) introduced was named the "Internet Gambling Prohibition, Poker Consumer Protection, and Strengthening UIGEA Act." That sounds like something a congressman could vote for without any backlash from conservative constituents.
Barton told PokerNews in November that he believed there were already the votes to move his legislation through the House. He laid out the plan for 2012, to move the bill through the Energy and Commerce Committee in the spring and the full House in the summer.
Another hurdle is opposition from Las Vegas Sands chairman Sheldon Adelson. One would think that a single person could not derail what so many people want. However, Adelson has the ear of Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). Having Kyl on board to strengthen UIGEA while exempting poker is probably the biggest key to getting legislation passed this year. If Adelson can convince Kyl to oppose online poker, many Republicans will fall in line under the Senate Minority Whip and that could be the end of any hope for online poker in 2012.
Kyl can't stand in the way for long, though, because he has announced that he will not run for re-election. Also not running for re-election is Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), long the champion for poker on Capitol Hill.
This interesting dynamic is one of the main reasons why I think 2012 could be the year. If Barney Frank really views this as a passion project, he is going to cash in his remaining favors and do everything he can to get it done before he leaves office. If Kyl wants to strengthen his baby, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, before he leaves office, this is the way to do it.
The November elections may also bring changes to the structure of the Senate. The Republicans took over the House last election and will be looking to take the Senate, as well. This may be Harry Reid's last term as Senate Majority Leader. If that ends up being the case, it may be time for him to finally put his chips on the table and push all-in to pass legislation that benefits the Nevada casinos that have financially backed him all these years.
All of this means the lame-duck session between the November elections and the next year could be very interesting.
In 2011, we did see the first state take steps to offer intrastate online poker. Look for the first licensed and regulated sites in the United States to get up and running in Nevada during the second half of 2012. The new year could see states like New Jersey and California follow suit.
Another thing to watch in 2012 will be the results of the federal indictments for owners of the three big poker sites and the expected payment of money owed to Full Tilt players.
The past year was worse for the poker community than anyone could have imagined, but the shattering of the status quo may end up being worth it if a safer, permanent structure for online poker is born in 2012.
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