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Poker Blog established in 2003 as the first stop for poker news, poker stories, and bad poker advice.

October 4, 2006

Prohibition

by Luckbox

The following report was collectively compiled and written by the Up For Poker staff. This is the second of a series of such reports-- Ed.

It's 1925 and Billy Mumphrey isn't sick. His body is healthy, his lungs are free from phlegm, and his nerves are as settled as Plymouth Rock. Still, Mumphrey is at the doctor's office. He has a big weekend planned and he needs a prescription for fun. And some grape jelly.

As it happens, he's found the right doctor. For a small fee, Mumphrey can get the script he needs. In the Prohibition era, without a prescription, the liquid is called whiskey. The doctor calls it nerve medicine. Regardless, for a little premium, Mumphrey has what he needs. Now if he had just had some grape jelly, he'd be all set.

It's not a real story. We made it up. Actually, we just assigned names and a short tale to something that actually happened countless times during the era of Prohibition. Back in the 1920s, whiskey was still considered to be an acceptable medicinal liquid. As such, doctors made a killing writing prescriptions for booze. One estimate said doctors earned $40 million on booze prescriptions alone.

So, what of the grape jelly? Well, it appears the California wine industry was even more clever. It produced grape jelly that--within two weeks of purchase--could be turned into a drinkable and strong wine.

What seems very clear about the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006 is that, if it holds up to legal challenge, it stands to make a lot of people very, very rich. Already, our comments and the poker forums are being spammed with people offering to sell quasi-legal poker accounts to American customers. Better thinkers will come up with other ways of making money. Whether it's offshore accounts, brokers for legal accounts, or services that allow for the semi-legal transfer of money, there is a new growth industry to fund online poker accounts in a way that protects the owners of online poker companies.

A little research indicates there are too many parallels with the Prohibition era to ignore. Of course, booze and poker are apples and oranges. However, the legal and legislative battles surrounding booze and poker are very similar and worth exploring.

Like the recent attempts to prohibit Internet gambling, Prohibition began as a series of failed attempts to make America constitutionally temperate. As early as 1886, a senator from Kansas managed to get his bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor. Nothing happened. In fact, Prohibition as we know it took several years to make it through Congress and several more to get ratified by the required number of states. Finally, in 1919, Congress passed the Volstead Act which, essentially, activated the constitutional amendment.

Celebrating with a mug of root beer was the Anti-Saloon League, a temperance organization that rose up out of Ohio. The celebration was as much about the validation of the group's political power as it was about forcing temperance on the country.

That fact is worth noting. The fight that led to the complete prohibition of booze was not one that was specifically aimed at improving the health or efficiency of America. It was a political battled aimed at validating the political power of a political action group.

While Up For Poker is not usually a place for political discourse (and its writers actually fill up the spectrum of political ideals), we all agree (and it can't be denied) that the far right political wing of American politics is vastly responsible for the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006. It was the pet issue of a few members of Congress that had very little support outside of very conservative circles. What's more, Jim Leach and Bob Goodlatte's pet project wasn't getting anywhere.

The men and their supporters needed validation for their cause. They traded political favors with Senator Bill Frist and he made sure their issues made it to the President's desk. Despite the legal way in which this bill made its way toward law, even Republicans have to agree, this was a law that didn't receive the kind of Congressional consideration that a law deserves. This bill has made its way to the President's desk in more of a political coup that a legislative process. Of course, even the Democrats stepped aside and allowed it to happen with little resistance.

How did that happen? Well, that's how Congress works. How did it get that far in the first place? Well, again, let's look back to last century's booze battle.

Times of war apparently make the destruction of rights an easier proposition. In the years leading up to World War I, American brewers made a mistake and associated themselves with the German-American Alliance. The initial intention was to defend German culture in the United States. The result could not have been worse. Prohibition advocates seized on wartime anti-German sentiment and used it to attack brewers as anti-American and anti-soldier. Brewers were even accused of wasting grain and molasses. In short, prohibition advocates did their best to accuse anyone who supported the beer and liquor industry of being un-American.

Sound familiar?

Regardless of your opinion on the American situation overseas, it's sure that politicians have used patriotism as a propaganda pry bar in efforts to fund support for their pet projects. As lawmakers sought to end Internet poker, they called on America's duty to stop terrorists from funding American terror cells through the use of wire transfers and offshore accounts. While the red herring nature of the argument was evident, that didn't stop politicos from implying that the online gambling industry was complicit in the aiding and abetting of terrorism--no matter that there is not an atom of evidence to suggest that statement is anywhere near true. And, in fact, greater evidence exists that terrorists are using less disguised means to fund whatever they want whenever they want.

One of the greatest foes to Internet gambling, Rep. Jim Leach, a Republican from Iowa with extreme power in the Iowa caucuses, once, in reference to online gaming and it possible uses in the funding for terrorism, called online casinos "the greatest potential for money laundering that exists in the world."

There will be time, someday, to examine and debate the current wars in Iraq and against terrorists. In fact, those debates will be a lot more important. Regardless, in terms of the current situation in the poker industry, online poker companies and American poker players did not do enough to stand up to the baseless accusations of a Midwestern political and propaganda animal. It is a lesson. Never underestimate the abilities of a zealot in search of power.

In the years leading up to Prohibition, brewers and drinkers underestimated the reality and the political climate. In turn, the government underestimated the power of a public's refusal to accept governance.

Federal courts were overwhelmed with new cases. There simply wasn't enough space or time to handle all the people being charged with liquor violations. People began stealing liquor from government warehouses. The prohibition cops, charged with enforcing the law, faced worse than being too busy. In the first three years of prohibition, 30 agents were killed in the line of duty. Also, as we all know, the production of illegal booze went through the roof. From 1921 to 1930, the number of seized illegal stills or distillers trebled.

While the number of drinkers in America likely outnumbers the number of poker players, there is little denying the desire of the American populace to play poker. Last night, 95,000 people were playing on the world's biggest online poker site. Estimates say the Unites States makes up 80% of that playing base. That means 76,000 Americans were playing at the same time on one site--one site out of what was an ever-growing number of online playing sites. Some surveys suggest there are between 50-80 million Americans who play poker. Even if ten percent of that number play online and vote, it's a voting block that can't be ignored.

Regardless of whether this is an issue with political juice, if it stands up to judicial review, the true effectiveness of the law will be determined by enforcement.

The Volstead Act ended up receiving selective enforcement. Where it had support (small conservative communities), it was enforced. In big cities, so many people were ignoring that law that cops couldn't keep up. In mining towns, everyone was working too hard to care about enforcing a law nobody really cared about. Trying to enforce a law nobody cares much about is harder to enforce than a law the nation supports.

To wit: Finally, a government study and the Wickersham Commission determined what most people already knew. The public at large was ignoring the Prohibition laws and the enforcement of it was too expensive and dangerous for government agents to justify the law's continued existence. Perhaps most telling, the Commission found that the government had a much easier time stopping the trafficking of drugs than it did stopping the trafficking of alcohol. Why? According to the Commission, "there are no difficulties in the case of narcotics beyond those involved in the nature of the traffic because the laws against them are supported everywhere by a general and determined public sentiment."

With regard to the new online poker prohibitions, there is still a long way to go before anything will happen. Government regulators will soon be charged with deciding how tough the law will really be. It will be a hard job. If they make the law too light, it will be toothless and indicative of the lip service many laws offer the American public in terms of legislation. However, if regulators make the law too tough, they will face the wrath of business interests that aren't used to being told what to do. Primarily, if the onus falls too hard on the American banking industry--under the bill's language, one of a few arms of effective enforcement--the banking industry will balk. If the banks aren't on board, the job will be left to an already overburdened American law enforcement system. American citizens likely won't be too happy if their government law enforcers spend time going after online poker companies when they could and should be stopping terrorism, foreign and domestic.

The deed in Washington is done. It's been made clear too many times that we can't trust Congress on this issue and others. Further, when Congress manipulates its own rules to force any President of any party to sign a law, we can't count on a veto. Now, we are left with the hope of the judicial system and the Constitution. If we are failed by the courts, we are left with what hopefully is still the most powerful voice: the people. We are left to count on business interests and the American sentiment to restore our right to play poker online.

That means it's up to us.

Sources:

http://mojo.calyx.net/~schaffer/LIBRARY/studies/nc/nc2a.html
http://gaming.unlv.edu/reading/rose79.html
http://prohibition.osu.edu/

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