The Big Celebrity Charity Poker Tournament Shows US Online Gambling ‘Ban’ Is A Fantasy

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Celebrities like quarterback Tom Brady and actor Ben Affleck came together this past weekend to play online poker for a good cause — the charity organization Feeding America.

Here’s the thing, though: real-money online poker is supposed to be banned across the United States except for a handful of states that have legalized it. And the tournament took place at a poker site that is not licensed anywhere in the United States.

It all points to the idea that the US and individual states are banning online gambling in theory, and not in reality.

First, a quick look at the online poker tournament

The tournament came together with the impetus of some big stars, including Affleck, Matt Damon, Adam Sandler and others. And it benefited a very good charity: Feeding America is a non-profit that works on hunger-relief via food banks around the country.

The tournament, which took place at offshore poker site America’s Cardroom (ACR), raised more than a million dollars for Feeding America. The charity also benefited from increased awareness, as mainstream news coverage abounded; here’s something from CNN.

But it also raised awareness for ACR, a site based in Costa Rica that does not serve customers in the US legally.

Wait, isn’t online poker banned in the US?

Here are the states that have legal online poker currently:

  • Nevada
  • Delaware
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania

Michigan and West Virginia have also legalized online gambling, including poker potentially, but it is not yet live.

ACR, on the other hand, says that it serves 43 states and will not take poker players or bettors from Louisiana, Kentucky, Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware, Nevada or Washington.

Also of note: ACR offers sports betting and online casino games, also clearly not approved or regulated by any US jurisdiction.

The ‘ban’ on online gambling is a laugher

This is perhaps the worst-kept secret within the gambling industry: Online poker and gambling is banned in word but not in practice around the US.

This will likely come as a surprise to many who believe that there is an effectual ban on any type of US online gambling. There are, in theory, a variety of federal and state laws that ban unlicensed gambling. But that doesn’t stop a variety of sites from serving US customers.

Sure, there was the 2011 crackdown on online poker sites that served the US. But before and since then, offshore gambling sites have operated in the US with abandon.

Still, politicians and others will wring their hands over the possibility of legalizing online gambling, even as Americans pour billions of dollars into offshore sites.

The “poster child” for the ineffectual ban should just as well be this charity online poker tournament. A bunch of big names played on an unlicensed site, got gobs of positive media attention and no one really batting an eyelash.

That is a ban that is doing nothing. Anyone claiming that we need to think twice before legalizing online gambling should be forced to watch a stream of this poker tournament.

What should happen next for online gambling?

The logical thing, of course, would be for online gambling to continue to expanding in the US, beyond the states listed above.

There is currently almost zero will, interest or ability in stopping offshore sites at the federal or state level. Confronted with that reality, states should be creating online markets to compete.

In a world where land-based casinos are shuttered across the US right now, the benefits of legal online gambling should be clear.

Will it happen in short order? Absolutely not. But we watched famous Americans play online poker in the US at an offshore site — when online poker is supposed to be banned.

That will hopefully help to end the narrative that online gambling is actually banned in a meaningful way in the US.

- Dustin Gouker has been a sports journalist for more than 15 years, working as a reporter, editor and designer -- including stops at The Washington Post and the D.C. Examiner. He has played poker recreationally for his entire adult life and has written about poker since 2008.
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