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Exclusive Interview with Congressman Joe Barton

Joe Barton

Joe Barton was hanging around the cabin with the other 12-year-old kids at Camp Wisdom, a Boy Scouts facility in Dallas, when one boy pulled out a deck of cards and they started to play poker.

He had never played before and couldn't win a hand. Although there was nothing at stake, it was embarrassing. He went home intent on learning the basics of poker.

"I got my dad, who was a good poker player, who played a lot in the military during World War II, to teach me how to play and I never had any problem in the Boy Scouts again," Barton said.

That was when Barton knew poker was a game of skill. As a Congressman, Barton has taken the lead in pushing for legislation to license and regulate Internet poker. In the past two months, he has been poker's champion in two House subcommittee hearings on the topic.

Barton had been a supporter of Internet poker for years, but the House was a Democratic majority, so he supported the cause quietly in the background while Democrat Barney Frank led the charge. That all changed when control of the House shifted a year ago.

"When we switched over, the Poker Players Alliance and other stakeholders came to me and asked if I could make a bill," Barton said. "My bill really is just building on several bills in the past introduced by Barney Frank and John Campbell. It's the next evolutionary step. I don't feel pride of authorship because I'm building on the work others have done."

It made sense for a man from Texas, the birthplace of hold'em, to introduce the first poker-only bill in Congress. Barton played poker socially in college and as a young adult. He regularly drove to Louisiana — at the time the closest casino to his home in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. He loved taking vacations to Las Vegas to play. His game of choice is limit hold'em at low stakes. The highest he's played is with $10/20 blinds. He's also spent a lot of time playing on PokerStars, though only with play money.

Barton saw it as a personal thrill when he was invited to announce "shuffle up and deal" at a preliminary event at this year's World Series of Poker, but he'd like to be on the felt listening to someone else do it in the future.

"The players just wanted to play poker," Barton said. "They probably couldn't have cared less who was up there doing the shuffle up and deal. But it was an honor to me. Some day, if I ever get the money, I'd like to play in the Main Event."

For the poker community, the work Barton is doing on Capitol Hill is the real main event. His licensing bill has yet to be examined in a hearing. Both hearings in the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade this year have been on Internet poker in general.

Barton's plan is to go in the proper legislative order, starting with a subcommittee markup, then through the House Energy and Commerce Committee next spring and passed by the full House of Representatives in the summer. He could also see Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid taking the lead and moving a bill through the Senate first.

This might seem too good to be true for a poker community that has known great disappointment in 2011, but Barton is confident. He believes poker players and activist groups are getting through to neutral members of Congress and raising awareness with email, Twitter and Facebook campaigns.

"If we get it up for vote in the House, we have the votes," Barton said. "I think we have the votes in the subcommittee, the full committee and on the House floor. It's a little more dicey in the Senate because of the 60-vote requirement. Our whole strategy is to get something on the president's desk this Congress, so we have 13 months to go."

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