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For ten years, California legislators have been examining the issue of intrastate online poker. And in the tenth year of trying to find a bill that would accommodate all the special interests, another failure is already on the books, less than four months into 2017.

It may be time to put this issue to bed in California, cover it with a light blanket, and let it hibernate for a year. With the primary players unwilling to compromise, legislators are frustrated, and online poker fans are tired of the lack of progress. Despite everyone involved seemingly wanting some form of online poker, the suitability issue prompted both major factions to dig in their heels and refuse to move. No compromise means no bill, and it all means no online poker in the foreseeable future.

Bill Sponsor Gives Up on His Own Bill

The most recent development came from California Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, who sponsored and introduced the Internet Poker Consumer Protection Act in February 2017. He had already been familiar with the issue and sponsored online poker bills in past years, so his support this year was no surprise. What did surprise many is that he announced that he will not push this bill in 2017. According to Online Poker Report, Jones-Sawyer said, “I don’t want to sound like a minister or psychologist, but we’ve got to start from ground zero where we’ve got to at least get people to want to try to get it done again.”

Jones-Sawyer must have started the year with some hope that the two sides of the suitability debate would come together in good faith to work on a compromise that would enable the bill to move forward, otherwise he would not have bothered to put AB.1677 on the table. But something happened between February and the end of April to prompt him to give up completely.

Obviously, there are big issues facing the California legislature. And between state issues and potential battles with the Trump administration on the federal level, lawmakers certainly have their hands full with everything from healthcare to immigration, and from criminal justice to budgets. Online poker wouldn’t have much of a problem moving toward passage if the suitability debate didn’t pit major gambling operators against some of the largest Native American tribes in the state. When lawmakers are faced with choosing a side in that fight, no one wins.

Suitability Proves the Deal Breaker

Suitability is the word that has created so much debate over online poker in California. In the most basic terms, it refers to the suitability of a company that operated in the United States after the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) passed and became law. Despite its ambiguity, any site that remained in the US market after that law was enacted is on a hit list to be penalized by those who feel it took advantage of consumers. And the only major company fitting that description that is still in business today is PokerStars, a site that wants to offer online poker to Californians.

Many card rooms and some tribes in the state partnered with PokerStars to push for legislation that would allow the company to operate in a newly-created California market, even if it included paying a fine or survived a reasonable waiting period in order to enter the market. But other influential tribes opposed PokerStars, as it threatened to dominate the market via name recognition, experience, etc. Those tribes declared PokerStars unsuitable for operation in California, and other than imposing a waiting period of five or ten years, they won’t budge on any other negotiations. Both sides have been at an impasse since 2016 and cannot seem to make any progress.

Meanwhile, other obstacles had been overcome in past years. For example, horse racing facilities wanted a piece of the online poker pie, but an agreement was reached to pay tens of millions of dollars to the tracks as a settlement of sorts. It worked. The tracks backed off, and they were no longer an impediment to passing legislation.

That left the suitability situation. Arguments got heated in 2016, as online poker lobbying organization Poker Players Alliance took the side of PokerStars,

Jones-Sawyer introduced his 2017 bill with language allowing the suitability decision to be made by the state’s gambling regulator. Neither side was happy. Two months later, Jones-Sawyer has given up for the time being.

Poker players are none too pleased. Only three states – New Jersey, Delaware, and Nevada – have legalized and regulated online poker, while other states like Pennsylvania and New York continue to find reasons to delay their bills. While the PPA originally came into 2017 saying that California was the “best bet” for online poker in the US after Pennsylvania, that prediction seems to ring a little hollow at this point in the game.

The year is far from over. But California needs to take a serious break from the online poker issue until cooler heads can prevail and the various interests can come together with more flexibility and understanding.

Goodnight, California online poker. Get cozy because you may be there a while.


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Jennifer Newell

Jennifer has been a freelance writer in the poker industry for a decade. She left a full-time job with the World Poker Tour to tell the stories of poker. She now lives in St. Louis, writes about poker while pursuing other varied interests, and speaks her mind on Twitter… a lot.