Sunday, April 04, 2004

Letter to the editor ... or something

I'm not sure what to do with this thing I just wrote. It's too long to be a letter to the editor, which is what I intended, but it's really hard to get the Grand Rapids Press to print a longer editorial. Any suggestions?

It doesn't matter what this headline says, because newspaper editors really like to make up their own headlines

On Sunday, the Press ran an article detailing the rise of poker as a cultural phenomenon, particularly on college campuses. It’s true: After movies such as Rounders, and TV shows such as the World Poker Tour, poker—and particularly Texas Hold’em—is poised to become to our decade what Mah Jongg was to the 1960s, Fondue pots to the 1970s, Trivial Pursuit to the 1980s, and Pictionary to the 1990s. It’s the way we spend time together.

But not if you live in Michigan. Here, the only people allowed to play poker, by law, are people living in senior citizen homes, and even they can only play for low stakes. Casinos can deal poker, but there are only three casinos in the entire Lower Peninsula which do so. All of them are more than an hour’s drive from Grand Rapids. And most are so poorly run that they would go bankrupt if their business was competitive.

With most forms of gambling, such as roulette, blackjack, or slot machines, the house—the casino—has a defined “edge,” meaning over time, the player can be expected to lose a specific percentage of what he wagers. With most, nothing the player can do will increase or decrease that percentage—the same bet will have the same expectation of winning every time it’s made.

Poker, however, is a game partly of luck and partly of skill. A player’s skill, in fact, largely consists of minimizing the effect of luck on his play. Players are competing against one another, not the house, which means that most of the time, the winning players are the ones with more skill at the game. There are even professional poker players, earning a living by being better at poker than their opponents. There are no professional roulette players.

In the 1990s, California recognized that poker is primarily a game of skill and as such is not subject to their gambling laws. Following this, California saw cardrooms opening all across the state, providing not only jobs to California’s citizens but tax revenue to their state’s coffers. Today, the center of the poker phenomenon is not Las Vegas, but Los Angeles.

Michigan’s legislature, however, has determined that this cultural phenomenon is going to skip Michigan. Michigan shall remain outside of mainstream America, and despite our governor’s efforts, our cities will continue to be uncool. And, since there are any number of online cardrooms, the revenue Michigan’s poker players generate for those businesses make is taxed somewhere else, not in Michigan.

The Michigan Penal Code defines poker as gambling, despite the experience of those who play it. This can be changed by striking a few words from current law. Changing the law would not only generate jobs and tax revenue from the cardrooms themselves, but may also encourage the online cardrooms to locate here, with their associated high-skill jobs, where the legality of their businesses is not in question. Further regulation of cardrooms is probably best left to their customers and managers—if a cardroom is poorly run, even cheating, let its patrons go elsewhere.

Assuredly, Michigan’s established casinos would spend a lot of money to defeat a bill legalizing poker. But if they were better at running their poker rooms, people like me wouldn’t be clamoring for competition. There are also some who might object on religious or moral grounds, if they believe that poker is gambling. But poker is an American tradition, even an American institution, which was played and enjoyed by Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan. History hasn’t been kind to some of these men, but they can’t all have been immoral.

Poker is, in fact, a cultural phenomenon which is sweeping the country. It is time to recognize that, and allow it to sweep Michigan as well.