Game Boy

Tom Chambers is a young graduate of Harvard who recently scrapped his job as an actuary to make a living playing online poker. But a new law threatens his livelihood. Can he and others like him hold—or must they fold?

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When you watch Chambers play and listen to him talk about his poker strategy and his philosophy of gambling-he is as thoughtful as he is sharp-you want to bet the pot on his success in this fast-growing field (the Associated Press reported in October that the global industry would pull in $15 billion in 2006, up from $12 billion in 2005). But his professional career has come into jeopardy with the passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, signed into law October 13th. The law prohibits banks from allowing online gamblers to use credit cards, checks, and electronic fund transfers to settle their bets. Though there is much ambiguity as to whether Internet gambling was illegal all along-courts disagree on whether it violates a 1961 law prohibiting betting over the phone-most large financial institutions have little to gain by challenging the latest crackdown. Operators of the poker sites that remain open to U.S. players hope to find easy, legal ways for casual players to handle money, but the online gambling business worries that, when people can’t use their Visa cards, many will go back to solitaire.

The chief proponents of the new law-Republican congressmen Jim Leach of Iowa and Bob Goodlatte of Virginia-contended that burgeoning Internet gambling was ruining lives (“Click your mouse, lose your house"). Leach argued that online gambling in effect brought the casino into “the home, office, and college dorm. Children may play without verification, and betting with a credit card can undercut a player’s perception of the value of cash, which too easily leads to bankruptcy and crime.”

After the measure passed the House, Senate majority leader Bill Frist attached it to an unrelated port security bill, and the proposal sailed through.

Online gamblers naturally decry the change and offer differing predictions as to how and whether the act will be enforced. Internet gambler Charles Murray of the conservative American Enterprise Institute argued in The New York Times that gambling sites outside the United States would continue to handle American customers because “it is absurdly easy to devise ways of transferring money from American bank accounts to institutions abroad and thence to gambling sites.”