Playing poker is not the same as feeding chips into the 'one-armed bandit' and it shouldn't be treated the same...
Last month the Senate Environment and Communications Committee released a report on the participation of Australians in online poker,which recently become illegal in Australia. Disappointingly, the Committee missed the opportunity to recommend legalising a form of gaming that up until recently over 130,000 Australians enjoyed safely.
Only David Leyonhjelm and Cory Bernardi, both participating members for this inquiry, recognised the evidence that online poker is a low-risk, skill-based activity with tax benefits for the Commonwealth, with the majority delaying any action on this issue until the National Consumer Protection framework is implemented later this year in another example of procrastination by our Parliament always pushing things back on the ‘too-hard’ list’.
Poker is fundamentally different from other forms of gambling, due to one difference, that poker players do not play against the house or the casino – they play against other players. Generally, in poker, the same big-name players are always ending at the final table at major events. They don’t end up in those final spots due to constant luck, they end up there because they have skills, and they know the right strategies to win against any other player. Poker is a game where your potential to win does not depend on the cards you are dealt, you can be dealt the worst hand in the game and through deception and skill, you can still come out on top. While if you’re lacking skill, there is a chance of losing a game of poker, this does not necessarily define it as gambling. Under the condition of ‘chance’, any human interaction could be classed as a gamble – investing, lending money to someone etc. This is an outdated law, and needs to be re-evaluated.
In 2001, when online gambling legislation was first introduced, online poker barely existed, therefore was given little attention. It is known as a grey area in the law. Criminalising online poker is the government’s way to mask the much larger issue of problem gambling. It’s throwing everything in the one basket and making it illegal without taking the time out of their busy schedules to sit down and analyse potential solutions.
A game of poker in a casino or any other casino game can be over within a few seconds, where you could be putting down hundreds of dollars to buy into those games, with little to no utility gained. The overall cost of buying into an online poker game is dramatically less than other forms of gambling, online or not. Regular online poker player, Robert Munro, in testifying before the committee, said that it costs him from $2- $5 which could last him up to three to four hours. The most frequent amount that more than half of online poker participants in a British survey reported losing monthly was well under $20. Look at this in comparison to poker machines, where players can easily lose $20 within a few minutes with no wins at all, regardless of how ‘strategic’ they are. The bonus with online poker is that whatever you pay to buy-in, you receive back some form of utility. It’s entertaining, it’s fun, and the more you play, the better it gets.
In 2012, there were nearly 130,000 Australians participating in online poker illegally, meaning they are taking their money overseas, using foreign sites. People will continue to play online poker – simply do so illegally through the use of VPNs. Previously, when online poker was legal to play (but not operate) in Australia, the US, in particular, raked in $68 million in one year from us through their online poker companies. Through legalising online poker, Australian businesses can share in these profits, providing higher revenues for the government through taxation, allowing businesses to operate freely and creating employment opportunities for Australian workers in the process.
Online poker, for many, is a form of leisure and entertainment, an intellectually stimulating activity in which players are able to further develop their skills as they progress in the game. But, in familiar fashion with the Australian government, people simply aren’t supposed to have fun.
The only thing this ludicrous law has done is force consumers to turn to foreign online poker organisations and websites, which has destroyed Australian businesses and robbed us of much-needed employment opportunities. That’s right. Restricting businesses takes away jobs. Who would have thought?
Poker players inherently seek to beat the odds, not win despite them. It’s time the Australian government took action, classifying online poker individually, and treated it accordingly under the law.
Sarah Ray is a Research Associate at the Australian Taxpayers' Alliance
[This article first appeared in The Spectator Australia]