Poker pro and PokerUpdate writer Chris “Fox” Wallace sat down with Curtis Woodard, leader of the fight to bring about changes to the prohibitive laws against poker in Washington State.
I first heard about you after you were on the radio with Dori Monson. How did that come about? Did you know each other previously?
“Dori Monson’s producer reached out to me and invited me to come on the show to talk about our efforts to undo the felony prohibition on Internet poker in our state. It all came about fairly quickly. Dori’s disgust at the current law making felons of adults, playing the same game online the state ‘allows’ us to play in Tribal casinos and state-licensed card rooms, is genuine and shared by the players most affected. I hadn’t met him previously, but am thankful to have him on our side.”
Did the radio exposure generate a big jump in interest in your site?
“The exposure was definitely good for the cause, and we have picked up some new forum members as a result. Getting the players engaged in the political process is key to being successful in changing the law. It’s important to show the issue matters to more than a handful of folks, or the legislature may continue to ignore the issue.”
What brought about such a strong interest in getting online poker legalized and regulated in your state? Were you a big player before Black Friday?
“I’m the type of player most affected by the felony prohibition. I am not a regular card room player, and I very much enjoyed microstakes tournaments online as a way to learn the game and enjoy the competition. The law was largely ignored for several years, as a challenge worked its way through the state courts. When that challenge failed, both Pokerstars and Full Tilt Poker withdrew from the market. This was several months before Black Friday, when the rest of the country felt the first hint of our pain.
After Black Friday, it seemed as though Washington State had simply been written off, and my frustration with the lack of a real effort to change the state law led to my becoming involved in the fight. Sometimes, if you want something done, you have to do it yourself.”
You have proposed a two-tiered approach to online gaming regulation in Washington State, can you tell us some more about this approach?
“A major stumbling block in trying to legislate Internet poker, especially on a state-by-state basis, is the fact there are so many in-state interests who either want to be in the game, or fear being left out of the game. Intrastate will only support a few distinct platforms, and there are far more interests who would be left out of the market, if we followed the lead of NV and NJ, than would able to participate. This leads to opposition. We aim to overcome that problem, by using the network model, to allow for wider participation from our in-state interests, without splintering player liquidity to levels that would be unsustainable. Our plan is to license existing card rooms to extend their games to players online, with a separate license for the operators who will provide gaming systems and services to those card rooms.”
How long have you been working on this project, and what is the progress like so far?
“I started with an attempt to bring an Initiative to the Legislature in 2013, but found raising the money necessary to make that happen too difficult. It was going to be an expensive project, with a good chance of failure. But we were able to use that as a vehicle for bringing attention to the issue. There was also hope that a regulatory bill would be introduced in the 2014 legislative session, but that bill failed to materialize. That is when I started formulating the network approach, as a means to bring all the stakeholders together, to build consensus on an approach forward, and to create a bill that would have a high likelihood of passing the legislature.”
Do you see a time frame for getting something done or at least getting something up for a vote?
“My confidence is high that we will see a bill introduced in the next session of the legislature, and hopeful it will get a hearing in the state house. I met with the Chairman of the key committee that the bill must go through to share our approach, to point out the differences between ours and previous attempts, and to make the case that the issue deserved a hearing. He made me no promises, but it was a productive meeting. We agreed on many key points, and he shared with me the concerns he would need to see addressed. I was also in the State Capitol this past week to meet with the state representative I hope will introduce the bill.
We have a short legislative session in Washington State, and there are big issues on the table this year. The work we do between now and the end of the year will be a big factor in whether or not we are successful.”
Other than Dori, who seemed to be clearly on your side, have you been able to bring any celebrities or legislators on board with the project yet?
“There is a pretty big poker community in Washington State, and it would definitely help to have some of the big names get on board and help with this effort. We are always reaching out to some of the big names. Those players tend to be casino regulars, and the online game is not yet a concern they are willing to put their names to. It is a bit disappointing, but we’ll keep trying. There is a good deal of support in some quarters of the legislature, but we need to do more. We will need to see a full time lobbying effort if we are to be successful.”
We’ve talked to other people in Washington who say the money can be traced directly to campaign contributions for the sponsors of the bill. Do you think this is true and have you considered releasing that information to point a finger at those who essentially took campaign money in exchange for their vote?
“The sponsor of the 2006 bill that became the current law, and the governor who signed it, both received campaign money from gaming Tribes in our state. The Tribes do a lot of lobbying, as is their right. The online poker industry and the players themselves can, and should, lobby for their interests as well, but we aren’t seeing that happen so far.
Online gambling was never ‘legal’ in Washington State. The State Constitution bans all gambling not specifically authorized by the legislature. The 2006 amendment added the word ‘internet’ as a prohibited means of transmitting gambling information, and upped the penalty to a felony. The reason given for raising the penalty was to aid in getting interstate warrants to go after offshore gaming sites. It also made offering online gambling to Washington State players a RICO predicate. While these are legitimate reasons for what they did, the fact that no effort has been made to go after offshore gaming sites still serving players in our state, even after all these years, does call into question the validity of those reasons.”
Does your plan include a way for Washington State to join up with other states and share player pools once the two-tier system is set up? How would this work?
“We address this issue in our proposal, and we certainly want to see shared player liquidity. One of the advantages of a network approach is that you have multiple sites on a common platform. Just as easily as that is accommodated intrastate, where those platforms are licensed in other states, sharing liquidity is fairly easy. Washington State players would still play on Washington State sites, but in a common player pool where agreements can be made. We see this happening already, with the agreement between DE and NV. It seems that so far, only one of the major providers has embraced the network approach, but I’m convinced it will become commonplace as Internet poker spreads across the US.”