Online Poker: A Fun Way to Kill Time, and Legislation

It’s been a few days since it was reported that Gov. Deval Patrick‘s proposed casino legislation would outlaw online gaming in the state. In case you’ve been wondering what’s taking us so long to comment on it (and we know you have), it boils down to this: we’ve been trying to figure out what the hell the governor was thinking.

We’re still trying. Making it legal to play poker in buildings while making it illegal to play poker on computer screens, beyond hypocritical, just sounds stupid.

There is an argument to be made that allowing the state’s three licensed gaming operators to be sole overlords of Massachusetts poker would mean more revenue for the commonwealth. Eliminating competition by forcing computer poker jockeys into casinos would theoretically add value to the state’s gaming licenses and thus boost (taxable) casino revenue.

Beyond that, there is the more practical matter of how the online gambling flap affects the casino battle in the State House. Patrick’s casino bill faces an uphill climb, and the last thing it needed was more boulders blocking its path, and hypocrisy tends to be a pretty big rock.

To test out the potential effects of the online gaming clause, we gave Rep. Frank Hynes a call. A Democrat from Marshfield, Hynes admits that he’s been skeptical of expanded gaming in the past, but on the current proposal he is “firmly planted in the middle.” This is the first time resort casinos have been brought up as an issue—by a Democratic governor no less—and Hynes says he wants to give the idea a fair shot.

The House is filled with fence-sitters like Hynes, and these are just the type of reps Patrick has to win over to force his proposal through. But if their reactions to the internet gambling clause are anything like Hynes’, that could be bad news for the governor.

Despite maintaining that it’s way too early in the process to decide his final vote, Hynes sounded exceptionally miffed when discussing the online gaming clause. Maybe even a little insulted.

“I mean, why do that?” he said. “It doesn’t make a whole of sense to expand gambling and then say online gambling should be shut down.”

Hynes’ main gripe—especially coming from the perspective of a gambling skeptic making a concerted effort to study both sides—was the lack of thought and analysis that seems to have gone into the online gambling clause, buried deep within the legislation.

“I haven’t seen yet any valid grappling of that issue by either those opposing [online gambling] be prohibited or those that suggest that [the clause] should be included,” he said.

Hynes is of the mind that the state ought to be embracing the bill Barney Frank is working through Congress, which not only would make online gambling legal, but would allow the state lottery to sell tickets online.

“By marketing online, you plug into a very easy way of capturing revenues that otherwise would be lost,” he said. “We ought to embrace the Internet as being the new marketplace of the future, rather than prohibiting its use.”

The simplicity and obviousness of that statement is really a bit stunning. Who knows how much more lucrative it could be for the state to hawk lottery games online? And if you’ll allow us a moment of imagination, what if the state’s three hypothetical licensed casinos hosted online poker games themselves, maybe even with incentives—like bonus free meals or discounts for winners at casino restaurants—designed to lure players inside their doors?

Better to use the Internet than try to quash it, right? We’re not China, after all.

If Patrick’s latest fumble costs him the support of open-minded fence-sitters like Frank Hynes, online poker players won’t have anything to worry about—the casino legislation won’t have a chance.