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Poker Players Put Chips on Entertainment Value

By: Kenneth P. Vogel January 30, 2007 07:08 AM EST

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When it comes to winning on Capitol Hill, poker's got nothing on horse racing.

The horse racing industry has cultivated strong ties in Congress, which it has used over the years to pass legislation protecting its interests and to block potentially harmful bills. Last year, it won an exemption in legislation cracking down on other forms of Internet gambling.

Now, a group representing poker players is seeking to play a stronger hand in Congress, in part by replicating elements of the horse racing lobby's strategy: convincing lawmakers to treat it not as just another form of gambling, but as popular, even wholesome, entertainment that could bolster government coffers.

"We'd like lawmakers to look at poker the same way they look at horse racing -- that they're both American traditions," said Michael Bolcerek, president of the 135,000-member Poker Players Alliance. Formed in 2005 and funded through member dues, the group has engaged in aggressive public relations, voter education and lobbying.

Bolcerek touts a study showing regulated and taxed online poker could raise $3.3 billion a year for the U.S Treasury, plus $1 billion for states. He said 23 million Americans play poker online and 70 million play it in person, and his group is working to turn those players into a recognizable voting bloc.

In addition to hiring a top public relations firm, the alliance has spent more than $720,000 lobbying Congress, Senate records show.

But slick PR and lobbying aren't as important to the horse racing industry's success on Capitol Hill as its longstanding ties with politicians from horse racing and agricultural states, said Keith Furlong, deputy director of the Interactive Gaming Council, which, with the poker alliance, unsuccessfully opposed last session's Internet gambling crackdown.

The Poker Players Alliance is hoping that grass-roots momentum can make up for its lack of institutional power. It's recruiting local, regional and state directors to help mobilize poker players. After Rep. Jim Leach, the Iowa Republican who wrote the Internet gambling bill, lost his re-election bid in November, the association conducted a poll in his district that it says showed that his opposition to online gambling could have cost him the election.

Leach's former spokesman, Gregory Wierzynski, called the poll "silly" and expressed doubts that the poker players could build such a potent lobby.

A powerful selling point for horse racing, which online poker lacks, is the number of agri-business jobs it supports, said Greg Means, a contract lobbyist for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association.

"We don't really care about the poker players," he said, nonetheless wishing them well "if they have enough political clout to go and get themselves legalized in one fashion or another."

For more information, please see "Gambling Industry Dealt a Good Hand In New Congress."

TM & © THE POLITICO & POLITICO.COM, a division of Allbritton Communications Company



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