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Fold the cards on poker bill

LAST UPDATED: 9:00 p.m. HST, Mar 28, 2011

Facing fierce opposition to a bill that would remove tax exemptions for purchases of school supplies, state House members have drawn new cards for Senate Bill 755: exempting a version of poker from Hawaii's gambling prohibition.

The sly move comes too late in the Legislature to be subjected to sufficient debate and should be folded for this session.

The gambling proposal differs significantly from past moves to open casinos or issue lottery tickets. Organized Texas Hold 'em or Omaha variations of poker have made popular television square-offs or online competition, neither of which would include a "house" to receive a cut of the winnings.

The proposal calls for a "Peer-to-Peer Entertainment Commission" to license tournaments and determine individual entry fees, which have been as much as $100,000 in high-stakes tournaments such as the World Series of Poker.

The move follows an intriguing televising of poker matches that have been organized into the poker World Series and a number of other poker tours. TV ratings peaked on ESPN in 2005 but the poker matches continue to draw large numbers of viewers.

Neal Pilson, a television consultant who has dealt with the poker series, has described it as reality television.

"I equate poker to NASCAR," which he noted has been a successful TV draw to people who drive cars. "Well, there's a huge population that plays poker. It's reality programming, with drama, excitement and a tremendous amount of money."

In testimony last week, Jim Winiman said he and other Hawaii residents are "poker players needing to travel to other locations to compete."

He said they are upper-middle class with disposable income who enjoy travel but would prefer to play poker at home.

The commission would decide whether residents could participate in its events: Some past gambling bills would have blocked residents out of concern that low-income people, in particular, would throw away their savings or become addicted to gambling; those negative effects would not happen under the poker tournament proposal.

However, the issue might come into play in long-range, online poker proposed in the bill, with players sitting in Hawaii poised against players elsewhere. Those sessions would not require the huge entry fees in televised events but the problem is that online gambling violates the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gaming Enforcement Act. Casino companies failed last year to get Congress to legalize gambling across state lines.

The Hawaii bill's sponsors contend that online, interstate poker is legal because poker games consist of "competition in games of skills between human players and not in games of chance."

Poker is not gambling? Good luck with that one.

The sudden emergence of this poker proposal through the gutting of an unrelated bill raises too many questions late in the legislative session, including concern that it would open the door to more extensive gambling activity. It should be tabled.

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