The Real Reason Why Online Poker Has Been Put On Ice In California

February 16, 2018
The Real Reason Why Online Poker Has Been Put On Ice In California

If you’re an advocate for online poker, the news coming out of California isn’t positive.

For the second straight year, the Golden State is putting online poker on hold, as stakeholders and lawmakers focus on other, more pressing issues.

This is a sad state of affairs. Not too long ago, California was seen as one of the leading candidates to legalize online poker. That ship has apparently sailed off into the horizon.

Online poker off the table in 2018

According to Dave Palermo, a coalition of tribes are refusing to tackle any gaming expansion issues (online poker, sports betting, DFS, or anything else) until the state does something about card rooms offering what are traditional house-banked games via a player-rotated deal.

Amid this backdrop, lawmakers aren’t planning on introducing legislation in 2018. It would mark the first time in over a decade that online poker won’t be on the legislative agenda.

“The process was very contentious, and some people still need some time to heal,” Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer stated in an exclusive interview. “There’s some other issues with tribes and cardrooms that probably need to be resolved before we can move forward with this thing.”

Jones-Sawyer should know, as he introduced a bill last year. A bill that even he conceded was an exercise in futility.

“Obviously, we’re not going to put anything across the desk now,” Jones-Sawyer stated in April 2017. “If you look at the Assembly, we have other big things such as the transportation bill to focus on. This would not be a good year to put something controversial in. I think the ability to work out something next year has a bigger chance if we do some of the come-together healing things right now.”

How big of an issue was PokerStars?

This new development calls into question what was really derailing online poker efforts in previous years, most notably the failed push for online poker in 2016.

At the end of the day, the real reason online poker never went anywhere in California is most likely because a group of tribes privately opposed it. They played the game masterfully, letting lawmakers and the stakeholders in favor of online poker think they were just one more compromise away from legalization, but always coming up just short.

The first big issue questioned which entities should be allowed to offer online poker; a debate that revolved around the state’s racing industry. Once that was solved, it was PokerStars, suitability, and bad actor language that reared its head. And now it’s the longstanding fight over house-banked games at card rooms.

When things fell apart in 2016, PokerStars was largely blamed.

After failing to garner enough legislative support for a bill that would have allowed PokerStars to pay a fine, a bill emerged that would have kept PokerStars out of the California market indefinitely. Not surprisingly, PokerStars pulled its support and the measure failed.

Players believed that had PokerStars backed off, online poker legislation would have passed. More likely, another impediment would have presented itself, including the current card room issue or even the cost of the license or the amount of the subsidy that was being handed over to racing.

As I’ve noted many times in the past, people assumed removing PokerStars was the final piece of the puzzle. Chances are it wasn’t.

Time and time again, whenever a solution to one problem was reached in California, another problem seemed to materialize out of thin air.

As I wrote in 2016, short of writing every detail of the bill, the tribal coalition that was opposing PokerStars was unlikely to support any legislation, with or without PokerStars:

“… whenever a potential solution is put forth the coalition not only finds fault with the current proposal, but starts raising questions about other aspects of the bill. The coalition frustratingly keeps calling for more discussions — more discussions on an issue that has been debated for 10 years.”

The bottom line is this: PokerStars and suitability was a convenient scapegoat for tribes that seem to privately oppose online poker. To be clear, that’s their prerogative. As much as I’d like to see legal online poker in California, I fully understand why some tribes oppose it.

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