It was a little more than two years ago, deep into a Tuesday afternoon, and I’d just stepped off a plane from snowbound Boston. Even blinking hard — the sun was positively nuclear above the receiving area of V.C. Bird International Airport — I recognized my ride right away. Then again, it’s pretty hard to miss a bright red dune buggy parked against an airport curb, and harder still to miss Scott Tom beckoning from the driver’s seat, all megawatt smile and matinee idol good looks.
Tom isn't technically a fugitive — he isn't on the run, and the FBI and the US Department of Justice know exactly where he is. But for the time being, he's trapped on the island of Antigua, a perfect little speck of sand in the Caribbean that has become Tom's gilded cage. He's facing an indictment that could result in an 80-year prison term if he ever steps foot off that island. His crime? He founded and ran an online poker site, first out of a basement with his fraternity brothers from the University of Montana and then from a Costa Rican strip mall.
Tom started the site around 2002 when the laws surrounding online poker were still fairly murky. Then, in 2006, two conservative senators attached a sneaky little rider to a port-terrorism bill that effectively gave the federal government the power to shut down anyone who made money off online poker. Five years later, federal agents raided the offices of three of the world's biggest online poker sites — Poker Stars, Full Tilt Poker, and Tom's company, Absolute Poker — and a $30 billion industry disappeared.
Talk about a rigged hand. What happened to Tom and his competitors was government overreach at its finest. Poker is an all-American pastime — right up there with baseball or eating apple pie. Nearly everyone, from college kids to soccer moms, has at least dabbled in the game. This weekend's World Series of Poker — with its $10 million cash prize — is a highly anticipated television event, with sponsors and T-shirts and its very own celebrities. Just like any other sport.
OK, maybe poker isn't a sport, but it isn't really gambling either. To a large degree, it's a game of skill. Just like in tennis or bowling or golf, the better player usually wins.
And even if there is a gambling element to it, so what? I can walk into Shaw's supermarket this afternoon and buy 20 scratch tickets — which, by the way, require no skills — and that's perfectly legal. I can go online to Ameritrade or Fidelity.com and bet the entirety of my retirement savings on any random stock with zero knowledge of even what company I'm investing in — and that is fine. Hell, I can drive to a casino or Keno parlor in the 30-plus states that offer some form of legalized gambling — or, if the business section is to be believed, floating down the Charles by the time all is said and done — and bet every penny I have without breaking a single law.
Yet online poker against another consenting adult is somehow a step too far?
To be sure, the industry has done itself no favors. Its reputation in the past has been marred by cheating scandals (including one involving Tom and his company), fly-by-night Caribbean banks absconding with player money, even stories of gun battles, hookers, and drugs. But that doesn't mean online poker can't run clean.
And, odds are, it soon will. Three states have already legalized online poker: Nevada, New Jersey, and Delaware. Eleven other states, including Massachusetts, are working on similar proposals. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission has also indicated it plans to study the issue of online gaming.
What has been discussed in the Bay State mimics, in many ways, legislation passed in New Jersey. Players would have to prove they are physically in Massachusetts — gaming operators will ping your cellphone to verify its location is within state lines, right next to your laptop. Operators would also have to be vetted by some regulatory panel to root out any shady contacts to the illegal cowboys of online poker's past. And, no doubt, the state would get plenty of money — millions upfront, millions more in taxes.
If the current push to grant Internet licenses were to pass, online poker could be up and running again in Massachusetts as early as next year.
Personally, I think that's a good thing. I love scratch tickets as much as the next guy, and I still own shares of Pets.com, but I'd rather be chasing aces. And nobody should be facing jail time — or hiding in Antigua — because Americans like to play cards.
Ben Mezrich is the author of nine books, including "The Accidental Billionaires" and "Bringing Down the House." His latest book, "Straight Flush," was published last week.