After Iowa legalized sports betting this year, gamblers are wondering what might be the next frontier in distributed digital gaming.
The new sports betting law puts Iowa in the sights of out-of-state gambling companies, which are partnering with brick-and-mortar casinos to offer online and mobile betting platforms. Those businesses have an interest in expanding the law, and some stakeholders think poker should be next.
“Absolutely, we think that poker is the next logical thing,” said Yaniv Sherman, head of commercial development for the online gambling company 888, which is not yet doing business in Iowa.
Online poker became available in the late ’90s, about the same time the film Rounders” starring Matt Damon and Edward Norton was released. This led to the American “poker boom,” greatly increasing playership in both online and live games.
However, state and federal governments imposed restrictions on the industry in the ensuing years, culminating in “black Friday” in April 2011, when the U.S. Department of Justice seized poker companies’ website and indicted their executives. American players were blocked from playing on the major poker networks.
Since then, players have developed illegal workarounds to keep playing, and a few states have legalized online poker. New Jersey, Nevada and Delaware have some form of legal internet poker.
The Iowa Legislature last gave serious consideration to legal online poker in 2011. A proposal would have allowed Iowans to play interstate games from their home computers, but the system would still be regulated under the existing gaming bureaucracy.
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That proposal earned preliminary support from a Senate committee, but legislators ultimately opted to direct a study instead. It has gone nowhere since.
But Iowa’s latest move into the online gambling space could give lawmakers a reason to reconsider.
Gambling is a unique political issue in Iowa, drawing opposition and support from members of both major parties.
As a poker enthusiast, I argue the game is not susceptible to many of the concerns gambling critics have raised in debates.
For one, poker is a skill game, in contrast to games of pure chance, such as slot machines, which might be perceived as predatory because players have no impact on the outcome. It’s no surprise you can’t find professionally produced broadcasts of slot tournaments — believe me, I’ve tried.
Poker is a full-fledged industry with a wide fan base and strong media following. At a time when video games are seen by some as sports, surely poker should get the same consideration.
For casino loyalists who worry about cutting into brick-and-mortar outlets’ business, online poker should not be a major concern. Because player-versus-player card games require a lot of space and personnel, they are not large revenue sources for most casinos. Poker offerings at some Iowa casinos have declined in recent years, including the closure of one Davenport card room.
If anything, legal online poker would spur more visits to land-based casinos. Novice players start online because there’s less risk, but will eventually be drawn to real poker rooms.
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When I play poker in Iowa casinos, it’s common to hear people talk about playing online, despite the legal status. The vast majority of players I know who are younger than 40 old started playing for money on the internet.
“There’s definitely a cross between the two. Online is a good point to start at lower stakes, lower level players, and work your way up until you can sit at a table and do well,” Sherman told me.
Online gambling is here, and it’s unlikely to go away. Once a state establishes a legal industry, a policy lobby follows. The trend is for laws to expand access to existing industries.
Iowans have observed that phenomenon most recently with medical cannabis. The state first authorized production and distribution in 2017, giving rise to marijuana business interests. While the pace of reform is slow, expansion is inevitable.
Legal online poker in Iowa might be several years away, but it’s a safe bet it will arrive.
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