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10 Years Working for Poker: Pappas Reflects on Time Leading PPA

John Pappas

As the calendar turns to March 2018, the U.S. online poker industry sits in a dark place.

Legal online poker hands are currently only being dealt in three states. Many poker players nationwide give their business to black market sites, despite the fact that these sites have shown they're apt to fold up shop without warning, taking thousands of dollars in player funds with them.

But the situation could be even worse, if not for the continued efforts of the Poker Players Alliance. Formed in 2005, the PPA has spent the past decade-plus working to advance the poker cause at the legislative level in America.

Thanks in part to the PPA's work, some light has appeared at the end of the tunnel. Clearing away the dark cloud that engulfed the game after Black Friday has been an agonizingly slow process, but Pennsylvania is poised to become the fourth state to deal a real-money hand of online poker after breaking the legislative deadlock in late 2017.

However, the PPA finds itself at a crossroads in the wake of that major win. Longtime Executive Director John Pappas stepped away from his role at the head of the organization early last month. Desperate for funding to continue the lobbying effort, the PPA has put out the call for players to donate. It has also begun looking into the possibility of lobbying for sports betting legislation in hopes of raising new funding.

Many possible paths branch out in front of the PPA. The uncharted waters could fundamentally alter the PPA as poker players have known it, or even hold a more grisly fate.

Knowing this, PokerNews thought it would be an appropriate time to look back on the tenure of Pappas, with no source better for the reflection than Pappas himself. PokerNews spoke with Pappas at length about his time with the PPA. He outlined the high points and tough times of the past ten years.

Finding the PPA

Pappas first moved to Washington D.C. in 1997, after finishing college. He embarked on a career in government and public policy working for a hometown congressman from his native Arizona.

After spending seven years working in various roles within that office, Pappas left the public sector and began down the path that would ultimately lead him to poker advocacy. He took a job a public relations firm and tackled a number of different issues for clients running the gamut from Fortune 500 companies to trade associations to small state campaigns.

One such client: a fledgling advocacy group called the Poker Players Alliance. Right away, Pappas saw major deficiencies in how the PPA was being run. Applying his years of lobbying experience, he worked to correct those. He impressed upon PPA brass the need to open a base of operations in Washington, to better position the group for making political progress.

"I expected it to only last a couple of years, and a couple of years turned into ten years."

The need became especially stark after the 2006 passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The first governmental shot fired at online poker, the UIGEA was a turning point from the Wild West early days of the industry. Many well-known operators fled the market, while others remained to grab slices of the newly abandoned pie.

The need for advocacy became more urgent than ever, and the PPA heeded Pappas' advice to open the Washington office. And who better to run the place than Pappas himself?

Having grown up playing poker with friends and family and dabbled a bit in online poker in its infancy, Pappas at least had a basic understanding of the game. Combined with his extensive experience in Washington, that made him a perfect head man for the new office.

Not long after, he moved into the executive director role in September 2007.

"I decided that would be a good next step in my career," he said. "It was something I was interested in personally and professionally. I expected it to only last a couple of years, and a couple of years turned into ten years."

Working Washington for Poker

Despite some history around the game, Pappas had never even played a live poker tournament when he stepped foot into the PPA office to begin his new gig.

"I think there was some skepticism among the poker community," he said. "'Who is this guy?'"

Pappas, though, knew the PPA needed more than a poker player. It needed someone who knew public policy, someone comfortable navigating the tricky waters of the political labyrinth of Washington.

"I think it was a good thing that I came into this not blinded by my passion for poker, but driven by interest in finding a political solution."

"My love and passion for the game only grew in the past ten years," he said. "But, I think it was a good thing that I came into this not blinded by my passion for poker, but driven by interest in finding a political solution."

The first step for Pappas: reframe the debate and change the perception of poker and the average poker player. Pappas began to meet some of the members joining the grassroots organization and quickly realized a disconnect existed between politicians' perceptions of online poker players and reality.

For policymakers, online poker players were just a bunch of kids sitting in their parents' basements and dabbling in the seedy world of internet gambling to the detriment of everyone involved aside from illegal operators making off with millions in profits. Pappas had to make legislators see that underage players represented only a small piece of the total puzzle. Folks from all walks of life — "lawyers, doctors, mail carriers, soccer moms" — were enjoying the game.

To demonstrate this, Pappas organized fly-ins, bringing dozens of players to Washington, from top pros to grandmas playing for pennies, to meet lawmakers. They set up charity tournaments in tandem with the fly-ins, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities to show the good poker could do.

John Pappas
Pappas speaks in Washington.

At the time, corporate funding for the PPA was far more plentiful than it is today. Still, Pappas knew he needed to engage the community. Despite the game's immense popularity, the PPA counted fewer than 100,000 members when Pappas came on board.

Seeing this, Pappas worked with top U.S.-facing sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker to raise membership numbers and rallied for the cause at places like TwoPlusTwo where poker players congregated.

"I always ultimately believed this was going to be an effort by consumer voices telling lawmakers they wanted the freedom to play," Pappas said. "I think there was a wake-up call for the players. This pastime isn't 100 percent guaranteed. We need to do something."

Today, the PPA counts a membership of more than a million.

Along the same grassroots track, Pappas organized a state director program wherein the PPA tabbed individuals in different states to localize lobbying efforts. Those people served as local ambassadors for the PPA, engaging media and lawmakers in pushing for legalization and participating in court cases arguing that poker is a game of skill.

Ultimately, Pappas said, it was about humanizing the industry, touting the benefits of a regulated market, and working every day to "build champions" for the game among the folks who call the shots that determine the future of poker.

Hurdles Aplenty

Of course, as is the case with nearly any lobbying effort, the push to make online poker legal proved far from smooth sailing.

For one thing, many states hadn't even corrected ancient laws banning live poker, to say nothing of their views of online poker.

"South Carolina has a crazy law that says people cannot play poker in their homes," Pappas said. "We were changing laws just to be able to play."

Convincing career politicians of the benefits and consumer protections of legal online poker, was like trying to convince an Amish family to use a microwave while speaking to them in Spanish.

Convincing career politicians of the benefits and consumer protections of legal online poker was like trying to convince an Amish family to use a microwave while speaking to them in Spanish — a foreign concept riddled with a language they didn't understand.

The skeptical politicians responded with laundry lists of questions. How do you keep kids off the websites? What is age verification technology? How do will we curb problem gambling?

Pappas and his team had to come up with answers to all of these and more. They brought experts to Capitol Hill. They hosted demonstrations of relevant technology. They even funded a Harvard study examining the benefits of a regulated European market compared to the U.S.

"They were all still on the fence or completely against internet gambling," Pappas said. "We were the only voice in Washington advocating for this for many years."

John Pappas (left)
Pappas worked to convince politicians of the benefits of regulated iPoker.

Then, there were the two landmark days that radically altered the course of online poker in the U.S. The first was the aforementioned UIGEA, and the latter, of course, was Black Friday. Both times, division in the industry and a slow response potentially set poker back years.

"In the wake of 2006 federal law, we would have had a better chance of a federal bill [in favor of online poker] in the early days and even after Black Friday, had industry all been aligned," Pappas said.

Getting everyone involved — operators, casino owners, lawmakers and the poker-playing public — on the same page has been a major struggle in any jurisdiction into which the PPA waded. Look no further than California, Pappas pointed out, where the PPA began the fight in earnest in 2008.

At that time, the tribal interests, which hold considerable sway in gaming policy in the state, were 100 percent against iGaming. Pro-poker lobbying slowly convinced one tribe and then another, until the majority stood in favor. At that point, much to Pappas' frustration, the tribes began to squabble over who got which piece of the pie.

"Because of that, the entire effort has fallen apart," he said.

Convincing folks of the benefits of the regulated market has gradually become easier as the U.S. casino industry has realized the value iGaming can bring. New Jersey casinos are generating millions in revenue, which has helped power the lobbying efforts elsewhere.

That proved to be key in the PPA's efforts because, after Black Friday, the funding from online poker sites for lobbying shifted from a gravy train to a long-haul freighter bringing a once-a-month shipment of supplies to keep the lights on.

Eventually, that shift would be the final push that nudged Pappas to hang up his gloves and ride into the sunset.

Moving On, and the PPA's Road Ahead

"After Black Friday, it was always, 'How do we do more with fewer resources?'" Pappas said. "That was a bit of a struggle. I think we effectively did it."

Money continued to get tighter though, and Pappas hit his 10th anniversary with the PPA. He knew it was time to walk away for reasons personal and practical.

"It's time for me to expand my professional horizons," he said. "Practically, the ability to do this job and be compensated for it became very difficult. It just made an abundance of sense to step aside."

Pappas stressed that while many poker players may feel frustrated with the glacial pace at which legislation is moving, this was never going to be a quick battle. He called it a "major change in public policy," and these simply don't get through as easily as that bluff against the nit who has spent the last three hours folding before finally raising and then checking the scary flop.

"Practically, the ability to do this job and be compensated for it became very difficult. It just made an abundance of sense to step aside"

The work of the PPA, Pappas believes, has laid the groundwork for the progress that's still happening today and will continue in the future.

"Most generally what I'm proud of is that we gave a voice to a community that had no political influence or clout whatsoever," he said when asked to reflect on his best moments of the job. "It's been most gratifying to know we were able to create a single-issue advocacy organization and make it relevant in the political debate which is often crowded by big issues like health care, tax reform, defense spending."

On the other hand, Pappas said Black Friday was an obvious low point and a "gut-punch moment." But it may have ultimately helped get the ball rolling on a regulated market, as it exposed the problems with the way the U.S. market operated at the time.

That regulated market ever-so-slowly continues to take shape with Pennsylvania the latest domino to fall. Pappas points to Pennsylvania as a shining example of what happens when everyone in the industry works together, as lobbyists and stakeholders in the state unilaterally supported a regulated market.

"Having that unity is going to be critical to the future," Pappas said.

As to what that future looks like, the picture appears hazy at best. Pappas hopes to remain involved on a volunteer basis — he's currently listed on the organization's website as a strategic adviser.

With the PPA facing a clear financial conundrum, new director Rich Muny has put out a desperate call for donations from poker players, saying the PPA needs to raise $25,000 by the end of March just to stay afloat.

"We now find ourselves possibly shutting down during what could be the biggest year for iPoker and iGaming yet," he said in this month's edition of TwoPlusTwo Magazine. "Every dollar donated will go toward core operational expenses of our grassroots communications and advocacy."

Pappas echoed this sentiment.

"I think it's now more important than ever that the players step up and donate to the PPA," he said. "We can continue being a voice for the community, advocate for poker, leverage our expertise and advocate for all forms of poker. But, we need the support of the community now more than ever."

Click here to donate to the PPA and help continue the fight for regulated online poker in the U.S.

Photos courtesy of the PPA

  • John Pappas experienced 10 years of success and struggle fighting for legal online poker in the U.S.

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