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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

I’ll be boarding a plane in the next few minutes headed to Las Vegas, where I’ll be for the next several days to conduct some research (yes, really!) for my book and to play in the World Series of Poker.

I haven’t played cards for 18 months or so, should you probably be happy if I happen to appear at your table. Nevertheless, for a period of about two and a half years starting in 2004, when the poker craze was at its peak and it was easy to find poor opponents, I was playing quite a bit and relied on poker as a secondary source of income, without which I probably would not have been able to quit my consulting job.

Most of my play was online, which is certainly much duller than playing in person, but has the advantage of allowing you to play many more hands per hour: you don’t have to wait for the dealer to physically shuffle the cards, or the players to handle their chips. And if you like, you can play on multiple tables at once — this is not as impossible as it sounds since you should be folding most of your hands anyway, although there were days when I felt like a meth-addled air traffic controller. Since poker is a volume business — even winning players earn a very small amount of money on a per-hand basis — this was essential to many player’s ability to earn a living from the game.

All of that changed in September, 2006 when the outgoing Republican Congress passed the conference report to the SAFE Port Act, a perfectly admirable port security bill to which the Congress added a rider called the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 or UIGEA. The UIGEA did not make online gambling illegal (although its legality was and remains somewhat ambiguous), but instead sought to prohibit people from depositing money into online casinos, all of which are based offshore. Without money, of course, there can’t be any game, and — further frightened by some aggressive enforcement actions by the Department of Justice — many leading poker sites such as PartyPoker shuttered their doors to Americans.

Other sites, discovering that the UIGEA was a sloppily-written piece of law, developed workarounds and remain open to Americans to this day. But the games weren’t the same. The competitive ecology of poker is very fragile: winning players usually earn almost all of their profits from the presence of one or two suckers at the table. Once those suckers ran out of money (as suckers are wont to do), and found it was simply too cumbersome to get any additional funds in, a lot of the winners became the suckers — including me. So I got most of my profits out while it was still safe to do so, and lost most of the rest.

In the long run, this turned out to be a good thing: poker, as they say, is a hard way to make an easy living, and trying to moonlight as a poker player while running a sports business was physically and mentally exhausting. I’m having much more fun now than I was back then, and get go to bed feeling like maybe, just maybe, I’ve contributed something insightful to the world that will make people’s lives better.

But following the debate over the UIGEA was one of the primary motivators that got me into politics. It took a “dirty trick” — attaching it to an unrelated conference report that couldn’t possibly be voted down — to get the UIGEA to become law, although then again, this was undertaken partly in response to another “dirty trick”, which was the process of anonymous holds that was preventing the bill from coming to a floor vote in the Senate (where it would probably have passed on its own merits). I found the whole process of watching the sausage getting made alarming — but also utterly fascinating. Without poker — and without that bill — there probably wouldn’t have been any FiveThirtyEight.

The UIGEA, intended as a way to bolster their family values credentials, didn’t turn out so well for the Republicans. The bill’s principal sponsor in the House, a very moderate Iowa Republican named Jim Leach, lost his seat after 30 years to an unknown political science professor, a Democrat named Dave Loebsack. I was one of thousands of poker players who gave money to Loebsack — he was the first political candidate I’d ever donated to — and considering that he won by only 6,000 votes in a race that wasn’t even on many observer’s radar screens, it may have been those extra funds that put him into the Congress. Meanwhile, the primary driver of the bill in the Senate, the then-majority leader Bill Frist, retired and has barely been heard from since, his Presidential aspirations dashed by the landslide losses that Republicans took all over the country that year.

There are now efforts being led mostly by Barney Frank and Ron Paul — politics makes for strange bedfellows — to either overturn the UIGEA or to explicitly legalize online poker, which would allow American casinos to take money from American taxpayers, with Uncle Sam getting a share of their earnings. I am not terribly optimistic about the prospects for passage of any of these bills — gambling is opposed by many paternalist Democrats as well as most Republicans — but as the government is forced to rely on increasingly “creative” mechanisms to collect revenues and pay down the debt, they may gain some traction.

In the meantime, you’ll have to wish me luck, and I’ll try to spare you guys the bad beat stories.

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