Why Poker Sharks Are for (and Against) the Legal Poker Law

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The tax cut deal President Obama struck with Republicans is packed to the gills with hundreds of billions of dollars in tax cuts, tax gifts and unemployment benefits. So you could be forgiven for not noticing a smaller item: This compromise might finally legalize online poker.

As Slate's Chris Beam writes, Sen. Harry Reid is trying to slip poker legalization into the legislation, and it's a gamble that might just pay off -- not only for Reid (who just happens to represent the state of Nevada), but also for federal coffers and professional poker players.

Beam writes:

[Poker advocates] have a vested interest in legalizing the game online. "There would be a huge influx of casual players, of fish," says one Washington-based professional poker player who asked not to be named because his primary source of income--online poker--may not be legal. "It would be really good for me from financial standpoint."

Would Reid's poker legalization make online poker players suddenly flush? The answer is: In the short term, absolutely not, and in the long term, absolutely yes.

Here's why. The current legislation includes a 15-month "blackout" period when leading poker sites would have to go dark. That means no games, no pots, and no cash. Professional players who bank on dozens of online poker games a day for their main source of income would have to leave the computer chair to find live games or find a real job. Imagine being told that you can't pursue your main source of income for more than a year, and you can see why legal poker advocates are up in arms about the 15-month blackout.

When the lights come back, however, professional poker players will rake it in. Today, online games draw a self-selected group of players who are willing to play extralegally. That self-selection means that average and below-average amateurs -- like, say, me and you -- aren't in the mix. But in a world where online poker is as legal and mainstream and fantasy football, today's "sharks" (talented professionals) will suddenly be prowling in a world flush with fishes (casual players) swimming online for the thrill, rather than their rent money. I'll be be boom times for poker professionals. Before that, it will be dark times. But first, there has to be a vote.



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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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