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An In-Depth Look at FairPlayUSA

Greg Raymer

There is a new organization advocating for the licensing and regulation of online poker in the United States that is asking for the support of poker players.

The relationship between FairPlayUSA and poker players could be mutually beneficial as long as players understand what the coalition is and what it isn't. It is not an organization that will look out for the interests of poker players the way the Poker Players Alliance does.

FairPlayUSA is the brainchild of Caesars Entertainment and is openly funded by casino giants Caesars and MGM. It is being run by a public relations firm called Middle Coast LLC located in Washington, D.C. The executive director, Marisa McNee, works for Middle Coast.

However, the interests and agenda of FairPlayUSA should align with players who are looking for a safe and secure environment in which to play Internet poker. The organization will not be lobbying Congress for legislation that favors Caesars and MGM. The casinos have their own lobbyists for that.

The purpose of FairPlayUSA is to create an organization that will encourage parents, law-enforcement officials and people with no desire to play online poker to get involved in the push for legislation by focusing on the child-safety and consumer-protection aspects of regulation. Lawmakers hear from poker players and casino representatives all the time. While that has made an impact, hearing from regular citizens might be what is needed to give the issue that final push.

"There are reasons to want online poker regulated that don't just have to do with the desire to play," McNee said. "We need to reach those people."

Greg Raymer, the 2004 World Series of Poker Main Event champion, respected poker pro and PPA board member, has lent his name to FairPlayUSA's cause to be a voice for poker players on the organization's initial three-person board of advisors. He is joined by Parry Aftab, an expert in consumer and family cybersafety issues, and Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and U.S. secretary of homeland security. McNee said the board will be adding new members, including another poker player, by the end of the month and will continue to expand.

"We're hoping to get as many people as possible to support this idea, tailored in a way that we hope will be more appealing to politicians," Raymer said. "There are plenty of politicians who support our cause now. A majority of members of Congress haven't ever taken a strong stance on either side. Some of those undecided voters have concerns with things like law enforcement and child safety. We want them to know that, if that is their concern, they should vote for these bills because most Americans will feel more comfortable if the U.S. is regulating this industry."

The first act of business by FairPlayUSA is a petition calling on Congress to pass federal legislation to ensure the integrity and safety of online poker. McNee said the organization will eventually deliver the petition to Congress, though FairPlayUSA would never lobby Congress itself but would rather urge its supporters to speak with their members of Congress on their own.

The organization is still finding its way. Raymer isn't sure what his responsibilities will be. He figures that, in addition to doing media interviews, he might be involved in rallies or other events that FairPlayUSA could hold to raise awareness.

FairPlayUSA has been in the building stages for a while. Raymer said he was first approached to become involved with FairPlayUSA in late June by David Satz, a senior lobbyist for Caesars. PPA executive director John Pappas said he has been in contact with FairPlay since even before Black Friday. The PPA has offered its support to FairPlayUSA.

"They bring a different coalition and different set of interests to the table," Pappas said. "I think they will be valuable and complementary to the PPA in the goal of getting regulation and licensing for Internet poker."

On its website, FairPlayUSA offers its 10 principles, which include items to strengthen the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act and to provide tools to crack down on unlicensed foreign operators. Principles that are of more interest to players include, to mandate technological safeguards to ensure that games are fair and honest, and that players' deposits be maintained in escrow accounts and available on demand.

"You look at the Ultimate Bet scandal," Raymer said. "The general opinion on who is guilty is pretty clear, but there's been no involvement of any government and there's a good chance there never will be. If there was a U.S. regulatory agency, there's a good chance this never would have happened, but if it did people could go after the guilty parties in court and prove them guilty. Russ Hamilton, if proven guilty, wouldn't be able to sit back and enjoy the dollars he's sitting on. We would be able to take all that away from him, just like with Bernie Madoff. Every asset of Bernie Madoff's has been liquidated and that money returned to victims. It would be nice to say the same thing about the Ultimate Bet/Absolute scandal."

One point of contention regarding FairPlayUSA is whether it is truly a grassroots organization, as is indicated on its website. Grassroots movements usually apply to groups that are started by the people rather than groups orchestrated by casinos.

"I think everyone's definition of grassroots is probably a little different," Pappas said. "I think what you really need to have for an effective grassroots campaign is boots on the ground, and that's what the PPA has. Perhaps as that organization grows it will have boots on the ground, but I don't think they're looking for poker players to be those boots. They're looking for other individuals to be the grassroots for the organization, not necessarily poker players."

The truth is that FairPlayUSA doesn't really need poker players to make its point that regulating online poker will prevent criminal activity within the industry and better protect underage children from gambling. It's a nice gesture for FairPlay to want to include the players, and in return the players can help strengthen the numbers supporting FairPlay. And professional poker players can make the unique point that they want Congress to give them the same consumer protections they would receive for playing the stock market.

"Players have a stake in this and the point is to represent as many people as possible," McNee said. "I can't imagine an organization working on this issue that didn't include the players. To pretend they don't have a stake in it or a voice would be silly."

McNee said that FairPlayUSA was not going to get into advocating for one piece of legislation or another. Instead, it would support the general concept of regulating online poker. This is why FairPlayUSA does not specifically support Rep. Joe Barton's bill to license and regulate online poker, even though the Texas representative's legislation matches up very well with FairPlay's 10 principles.

That sounds like a fair way to go about advocating for this issue, though the organization would lose credibility if it changes its tune and supports a future bill from Nevada Senator Harry Reid. That would show that FairPlayUSA is not truly advocating for its principles but waiting for one bill, and that the claim of not advocating for one piece of legislation is just a way to explain why it is not supporting any other bill that meets its principles until the Reid legislation comes along.

The American Gaming Association, the casino industry trade association that claims Caesars and MGM as two of its biggest members, recently announced that it did not support or oppose Barton's bill. Caesars also has said it has no stance on the Barton bill. There are indications the casinos are waiting on a Reid bill, which they would presumably be able to control better due to their influential position as big-money donors to Reid.

When questioned about whether FairPlayUSA would commit to not advocating for a specific legislation for the life of the organization, McNee would not make such a promise.

"We do not know what will happen in the future," McNee said, "but at this time we have no plans to endorse any specific pieces of legislation."

Raymer said he had to go with what he sees now, and that is an organization that he thinks could help make playing online poker in an officially legalized, regulated environment a reality in the United States. He will also continue on the board of directors for the PPA. He isn't paid for either position.

"Maybe that's what is going on in the background, they're waiting to support one specific bill down the line," Raymer said. "I don't know if that is the case. I'm going to continue to help them as long as I think it's good for poker and poker players. If that changes, I will withdraw my support and advise poker players to do the same. I'm just trying to get a bill passed."

Editor's Note: FairPlayUSA executive director Marisa McNee called to clarify that Middle Coast is not involved with FairPlayUSA. McNee said that she is the co-founder of Middle Coast but is taking a leave of absence from the PR firm while running FairPlayUSA. Additional staff from Middle Coast has been working for FairPlayUSA, but McNee said that was a temporary situation of her using people she knew until FairPlayUSA can build its own staff.

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