Editor's Note: Although the following article was written before the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act changed the face of online gambling, the wisdom in it still stands true.
TheBob Ciaffone is one of America’s best-known poker players, writers, and teachers. He has numerous poker tournament wins and placings, the most prominent being third place in the 1987 World Championship. He has been a poker teacher since 1995, with his students having earned well over a million dollars in tournament play. Bob's website is www.pokercoach.us
Spanish-born philosopher George Santayana said in his 1905 work, The Life of Reason
, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Let us remember the unfortunate 20th-century American period known as Prohibition, with the hope of not repeating a well-known historical error.
In the previous century, America took a radical approach to the problem of alcohol by prohibiting it in 1919 with a constitutional amendment that introduced the infamous short-lived era called Prohibition. Only 14 years later, the 21st Amendment formally rejected this approach, repealing the 18th Amendment. Prohibition did not work; it was a failure.
As a poker player, my temperate use of playing poker on the Internet - one of the ways I enjoy life - is under attack, because there are some people who abuse poker-playing. This is déjà vu for me, French for being struck by a feeling that one has previously experienced. I was not yet born when Prohibition came and went, but my parents told me many stories about the widespread speakeasies, where even the most upright of people were turned into lawbreakers, and people made fortunes selling and distributing booze despite it being illegal. It was an era of widespread hypocrisy. I feel as though I have been through those times myself - and do not want to go back there.
My mom and dad used to have a drink - one drink - together every afternoon. It became a family tradition. After my mom died and I came home to live with my dad, he and I continued the tradition. Nowadays, after my father has passed away, I drink a small glass of red wine every afternoon. It is the only alcohol I have in an entire day. I have not gotten drunk since being a young man, and never have been a habitual over-drinker. I am just someone who enjoys a daily glass of wine. Doctors say it is good for your health.
Even though the percentage of people who misuse alcohol is small, the destruction caused to the abuser and the abuser's family is undeniably large. However, I have always resented the fact that there are people out there who wish to deprive my parents and me of this small pleasure, not because of any harm it does to my family, but because someone else abuses alcohol. It is Puritanical to deprive pleasure to many for the sins of the few - another historical error.
Nowadays, those few people wishing to turn back the clock to the Prohibition era are viewed as radicals who want to impose their own moral code on the vast majority of us by using coercive legislation, a discredited philosophy - or is it? The Prohibition course of action that was so ineffective for dealing with the drinking problem is now in the process of being resurrected for dealing with the gambling problem.
There is no question that Internet poker is capable of being abused, which produces harm to some of the participants. Many of the new players are young, and probably more than 80 percent are males, a group more susceptible than most to out-of-control behavior. Few of these young people have big money to lose or families to support, but the concern is leading a person into having a problem later on as an adult, more so than the immediate damage done. We must recognize that the possibility of Internet poker developing some problem gamblers is a real danger to society. It also threatens a loss of rights to those of us - the vast majority - who just enjoy playing poker, and can do so in a responsible fashion.
What should we do? The choices are to do nothing, to prohibit Internet poker, or to regulate it. Doing nothing is our present irresponsible course. Prohibition or regulation are the only options that attempt to address the problem - but we cannot do both. Illegal activity is not regulated, only legal activity is.
We should see that prohibiting Internet poker is not going to do the job of controlling the problem in the world of the 21st century. The Internet is worldwide, and the market for Internet poker will not go away. The sites that offer poker are located in foreign countries; the players are located in their homes. This means that both are for all practical purposes beyond the reach of American federal and state governmental control. Even if every American means of transferring money were cut off, all that would do is be a shot in the arm to Internet money-transfer businesses like NETELLER, which, again, is beyond the reach of Uncle Sam.
Prohibiting Internet poker is worse than ineffective; the ability to regulate it is gone. Here are some important controls that we cannot put into place if we make it illegal:
1. Put a restriction on the age of the user.
2. Offer help to the problem gambler.
3. Put to public use tax dollars from Internet poker.
4. Inspect sites to ensure the integrity of the games.
Because of poker's immense appeal to youth, it should be obvious that the regulatory route is even more important here than in any other form of gambling. The type of game in which the website acts as a host to players rather than an adversary to them is a separate branch of gambling, often demanding an approach taken in the law that is different in character from the approach taken for hard-core casino gambling.
Internet poker sites would be happy to cooperate with the U.S. government if they were allowed to be a legal business here. They already are forming a framework for doing all of these things with the British government, apparently a more flexible and wiser one than our own.
It is unfortunate that certain congressional characters act like they are competing for the dubious title, "The Andrew Volstead of the 21st Century." (Andrew Volstead was the Republican congressman from Minnesota who authored the Volstead Act, the legal name for Prohibition.) Like Volstead, they appear to be people of noble intent who are simply taking an unreasonable approach to solving a legitimate problem. Prohibiting behavior that is widespread, private, and enjoyed in a responsible manner by the vast majority of society is strongly frowned upon by succeeding generations.
We can learn a lesson from the development of derogatory words in the English language that have sprung up as a result of the behavior of people who were zealous prohibitionists. The 19th-century censor Anthony Comstock spawned the word "Comstockery" for moralistic communication censorship. Will Virginia Rep. Bob Goodlatte spawn the word "Goodlattery" as a synonym for moralistic Internet communication censorship? The 19th-century British prude Queen Victoria spawned the word "Victorian" as a synonym for being a hypocrite in sexual morals. Will Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl spawn the word "Kylian" as a synonym for being a hypocrite in gambling morals? These two zealots, Goodlatte and Kyl, appear to be on course to have their names become an unpleasant addition to the English language.
Modern times require up-to-date thinking, not Prohibition-style legislation that will create the need for a subsequent constitutional amendment to undo. Will our government let the few people who abuse playing poker deprive the vast majority of us, who responsibly enjoy it, of our pleasure? Let's hope we Americans do not repeat the same mistake with poker that we made in the 20th century with alcohol. The Yogi Berra expression, "It's déjà vu all over again," if made applicable by the passage of pending Internet poker legislation, would mean that we failed to benefit from the lesson of Prohibition.
We must learn from our past mistakes, not repeat them.