Top 10 Stories of 2017, #9: Australia Loses Fight for Legalized Online Poker
This year's Top Stories are brought to you by the VerStandig Law Firm, LLC. Combining a keen understanding of the gaming world and an equally keen understanding of the law, Mac VerStandig and his colleagues are devoted to fighting on behalf of the poker community and its members.
At the end of 2016, an ominous story hit the poker wire.
Australia, it seemed, had begun trundling down the path toward banning online poker, due to impending legislation that would banish operators while effectively making the game impossible to regulate. As industry observers have seen with the situation in the U.S., once those deep, dark woods are entered, it can take many, many years before a path to regulation is charted, much less traveled.
Australia is a country with as rich a history in the game as any. Aussie Millions, one of the most iconic and successful major tournaments, dates to 1998, before modern industry institutions like the World Poker Tour or PokerStars were even twinkles in their founders' eyes. The nation has birthed legends of the game from the proto-days (Mel Judah) to the boom years (Joe Hachem) to the modern (James Obst).
Poker's prominent place in the country meant there were plenty who wouldn't stand idly by and simply watch and shrug as government officials banned this great game with a few quick signatures and nary a second thought. As soon as the virtual ink dried on those initial ominous stories about online poker's future in Australia, the battle commenced.
The AOPA Forms, Rallies the Troops
As with any news that hits the poker wire, a reaction thread quickly popped up on popular poker forum TwoPlusTwo. People were upset, but upset feelings don't change laws. Action does.
Luckily for everyone in Australia who supports online poker, Joseph Del Duca recognized this and was ready and willing to take that action. He formed the Australian Online Poker Alliance and began taking the first steps to fight back against the impending legislation. He outlined a two-pronged mission: educate lawmakers and rally the poker-playing public.
"My life has been pretty evenly split between poker, politics and media," he said to PokerNews when reflecting on the year of conflict between pro-poker forces and the government. "Because of my background I knew I was as well placed as anyone to take on this campaign."
Del Duca didn't have to ponder the possible outcomes that would come out of an online poker ban. He needed only to grab his binoculars and zero in on the huge land mass a few thousand miles to the north and east.
"I could not accept something that has been such a central part of my life being taken away without a fight."
In the aftermath of Black Friday in the U.S., black market operators had swooped in and taken control of most of the liquidity in the online poker market. American players determined to keep playing picked their black market poison and simply hoped nobody would make off with their funds.
Most industry observers pegged the chances of success for the AOPA as slim to none. The Australian government appeared to have adopted a heavily anti-gambling stance, saying they were "committed to taking tougher action against illegal offshore wagering providers."
Del Duca believed that, however, small their chances, this was a war worth fighting.
"I knew the odds were heavily stacked against success," he said. "The whole industry and poker community seemed resigned to defeat and I could have easily just gone down the same road. But poker has given me so much over my life. I have so many fond memories from my time playing poker. The people I met and the friends that I made will stay with me forever.
"There is something beautiful about the game of poker and the way it brings people together. I could not accept something that has been such a central part of my life being taken away without a fight."
The grassroots efforts of the AOPA began with petitions and urging poker players to contact their government reps. However, making real legislative progress would require the group to enlist a powerful political ally. They'd find one in an opinionated senator who doesn't mince words.
David Leyonhjelm Takes Up the Cause
Sen. David Leyonhjelm represents New South Wales in the Aussie parliament. A staunch libertarian, he told PokerNews in a May interview that he had two rules.
"I will never vote for a reduction in liberty or an increase in taxes," he said.
Though not a gambler or a poker player himself, the online poker cause resonated with Leyonhjelm as a champion of individual freedom. After discussions with Del Duca, Leyonhjelm offered up some choice words about the online poker ban, calling it "silly" and "stupid."
As a crossbench senator – one sort of "in between" the majority party and the opposition parties – his vote can often swing legislation, and he used that leverage to lobby for online poker. After failing to get an outright amendment to the bill passed, he pushed initiated an inquiry, a step that allowed supporters to submit reasoning arguing against the ban.
The Hammer Falls
The words "poker player" don't exactly cause the image of a politically active, lobbying individual to spring to mind. However, hundreds of poker players fired submissions in opposition to the ban after Del Duca and Leyonhjelm called on them for support.
"The support I received was amazing," Del Duca said. "Both the professional and the recreational poker community really got behind the campaign. Reading the stories of what poker meant to different people from all across the nation was touching. It showed me that the love I had always held for poker was alive and well in others.
"It also vindicated my belief that poker is about the people. It is about the community of players and the bond that they share."
Leyonhjelm seconded that observation, calling the community's response "passionate."
"The inquiry provided strong arguments and a sound fact base for legalization of online poker," he said. "The submissions and report have been very useful at prosecuting the case for a change."
Initially, their efforts appeared to fall short. The government shuffled the ban through in the time it takes for a few old men to stamp some sheets of paper and move on to whatever they determine are more pressing issues.
Reversing the Damage
With the ban officially passed, all major international operators exited Australia.
The fears about black market operators swooping in proved legitimate. Australians had the same choice as their American brethren. Move out of the country if they wanted to continue playing online or go to the dark side.
"The legislation sucks."
It seems many chose the latter, including Oliver Gill. He's now splitting his poker playing between black market offering Ignition Poker, bitcoin site Seals With Clubs and unregulated Chinese sites.
"My money could disappear at any time," he said. "Basically the government took away any protection I have as a consumer by forcing me to play on illegal unregulated sites or bitcoin sites but have not reduced my ability to play online poker at all. I don't even need a VPN for any of those sites and anyone could sign up and use them.
"The legislation sucks."
However, all was not lost. Sen. Leyonhjelm continued to lobby behind the scenes and finally succeeded in convincing the government to give the ban a second look with an eye toward an online poker carveout.
Leyonhjelm declared a major victory.
"As a result of pressure I applied to the government, it has now agreed to relax the ban on online poker," he said in December when asked to summarize the situation. "The battle to legalize online poker has been won. We are now in the process of working out the details."
Leyonhjelm said he'd prefer to set up a gambling commission similar to that utilized in the U.K. It's also possible online poker could simply be retroactively exempted from the bill. Either outcome would be a win for online poker players.
While the outlook appears to be far sunnier at this point than at the start of 2017, Del Duca advised caution, noting there are still steps to be taken and those steps would take time. Some time in the next year, he expects legislation in favor of online poker to hit parliament for debate.
At that point, it will be time once again for the online poker community to step up its efforts and be heard, advocating to their representatives why online poker should be allowed. If the past year in Australia has shown anything, it's that the community can band together when it counts and make their voices count.
Ultimately, Del Duca does expect victory.
"I am quite confident that when I sit down to talk to you again this time next year that I will be sitting in my Sydney home playing online poker whilst I do," he said. "It has been a privilege to be able to take up this fight on behalf of so many people from so many different walks of life.
"I would like to finish by once again thanking the Australian poker community for their support over this time. It has truly been amazing to have so many people involved in our campaign. I look forward to working closely with everyone again next year to ensure that we get not only the result that we want and deserve, but the result that is in the best interests of Australia."
The VerStandig Law Firm, LLC represents poker professionals, sports bettors and advantage players across the United States. The firm assists clients in connection with legal issues including personal LLC formation and operation, tax planning that focuses on gaming deductions and exemptions, casino disputes, and personal matters spanning from divorce to criminal dust-ups.