Interview with the PPA’s John Pappas- Part II

June 12, 2011 - 3:26 PM EDT
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John Pappas is executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, a non-profit organization that attempts to represent American poker players’ interests. The PPA has faced widespread criticism recently as the United States Congress has failed to provide legislation to license and regulate online poker and the US Department of Justice has largely put a stop to online poker playing in the US.

In the first half of the interview, Pappas discussed his role at the PPA, the PPA’s litigation efforts, the current legislative landscape, the PPA’s efforts to help return players’ funds, and the legal status of online poker in the US. In this second half of this interview, Pappas discusses what players can do to help, the successes and failures of the PPA, other organizations involved in lobbying Congress about internet poker, and more.

 

The PPA’s Current Efforts

Noah Stephens-Davidowitz: What can players do to help the legislative efforts?

John Pappas: Well, I think players can continue–and have been doing a good job of–making their voices heard.

One of the big things that we have always promoted is activism amongst the players. The people who write and call and visit their lawmakers are the ones who are gonna get heard, and there can’t be a silent majority of players out there. We need to make sure that we–through a coordinated effort, or just through individual outreach, that we let lawmakers know that this is something that we care about, that we feel there is something they can do to change the laws, to restore the freedom to be able to play online poker.

The PPA provides a whole bunch of tools on our website at theppa.org where players can go and write letters; they can figure out who their congressmen are; they can e-mail, call–all of that. But, I also think it’s incumbent upon the players themselves to seek out their lawmakers. Set up meetings back in the home district, find out when their lawmaker is going to be attending a town hall meeting or a ribbon cutting ceremony, and go up and approach them in a very respectful way and say, “Hey. I’m an online poker player. I do this as a profession,” or, “I do this as a recreation, and you know, I really would like you to support legislation that would license and regulate it and make it safe for me to continue to play online.” You know, those type of things I think will have a huge impact.

We’ve made tremendous progress by the putting players’ face on this issue. Four years ago, no one believed that people cared about the right to play online poker. You can go to a lawmaker today–or certainly his staff–and say, “Have you heard from any poker players?” All of them are going to say, ‘Yes, we’ve heard from them, and we hear from them regularly,” and I think that makes a difference.

It’s a campaign, a number of little battles that we have to wage in order to win the war, and I think the PR and grassroots battle are a big part of it.

NSD: It sounds like you feel that the PPA has been quite successful there.

JP: We have been. I think we’ve been very successful.

I think if you were to speak to any third-party lobby or third-party observer of Washington politics, I think they would say the PPA is a highly successful and influential grassroots organization. What we have been able to accomplish over the last essentially three, three-and-a-half, or four years of advocacy has been impressive. You know, we haven’t had the final result, which is a bill signed into law, but certainly we’ve moved the ball in that direction, and certainly I think we’ve changed the debate here in Washington.

NSD: Why haven’t we had that result?

JP: You know, it’s government. It’s the process. Things–You know, they take time. We had a Congress that passed overwhelmingly legislation to try to outlaw this activity–perceivably outlaw this activity–and changing those perceptions just a mere four years later is going to be difficult.1

Obviously, we’d love to get a bill done this year. But, if we’re not successful this year, we’re going to keep trying. I don’t know what the players would rather see us–Just not do anything? Or continue to try? We certainly can try–I don’t think we can try any harder, but we can certainly move our tactics and change our tactics and program and hopefully, with the support of the player community, we can get it done.

NSD: Will your effort be hampered much by the fact that your funding has been cut so drastically?

JP: Yeah. It will be.

Obviously, it would be helpful if more players contributed to the cause. That would certainly help us be able to afford some of the lobbying expenses that we’ve been able to pay for in the past. But, from a grassroots side and from a PR side, we’ve done a good job of economizing that already. We have 1.2 million members; we know who those activists are within the 1.2 million membership; we can rely on them to be advocates for the game.

From a PR perspective, getting earned media is a very economical thing. Now, paid media is going to be something we’re probably not gonna be able to do. We’re not gonna be able to afford to put ads in The Hill newspapers and things like that.2  So, I think what you’re going to see is that some of the other stakeholders here are gonna be able to step up and carry the weight on that.

Other Organizations with Interests in Legislation

NSD: Who are you referring to?

JP: You know, people like AGA and the other individual brick-and-mortar companies, like Caesars, who have an interest in getting legislation done as well.3

NSD: Do their interests align well with the players’ interests?

JP: Well, that is–I can’t say that for sure. Certainly, I have not seen anything that they’ve proposed or pushed that have been–Well that’s not true. They have done things in the past that have been, I think, overtly again the interests of the players such, as the fifteen-month blackout period. They were simply doing that for their own competitive, selfish reasons, and the players would have been the only ones hurt by it.4

So, certainly, they have in the past. I think some of their anti-player things that were driven through their desire to get a competitive advantage may be lessened now that PokerStars and Full Tilt and UB are no longer in the market. So, we need to be vigilant and to keep on them to make sure that they’re not pushing legislation that is going to be negative for the players.

I know that they’re gonna start their own kind of organizations as well. I think you’ll see other groups sprouting up over the next several weeks that are going to be perceived as organizations pushing, much like the PPA is pushing, for licensed and regulated internet poker.

NSD: You’re talking about similar organizations to the PPA? Other players’ organizations?

JP: We’ll see if they’re players’ organizations or who will back them. But I think you’re going to see–I think people have seen the effectiveness of the PPA and want to model that for themselves.

Funding from Sites and Possible Conflict of Interest

NSD: When you describe things like that, I can’t help but think of the PPA, an organization that was largely funded by PokerStars and Full Tilt, as the grassroots organization that was on the side of those two companies. And you’re now describing a competing model where we have a grassroots organization on the side of brick-and-mortars companies. Both of those seem to be grassroots in name alone.

JP: Well, I would argue vehemently that the PPA is not astroturf.5 We have 1.2 million members. Those members show up at events; those members write their lawmakers; those members call; those members are seen and heard in every single district across the country. There is no way in any credible sense that a lawmaker can say that the PPA doesn’t have real members. We do, and they know it. So, I can’t speak for any other organization that may come about, but from the PPA’s perspective, we are 100 percent a grassroots organization.

Yes–Do we receive funding, or have we in the past received funding from overseas internet poker operators? Absolutely. Are they the heart and soul of the organization? No, it’s our membership. The individuals who are PPA members are the ones who are the ones driving the boat here, and they’re the ones who the lawmakers hear from. I’ve never brought an internet gaming executive into a congressional office to meet with a lawmaker. I’ve brought dozens of their constituents, and I think that matters a whole lot more.

NSD: But of course you understand that when you’re funding mostly from these poker sites, there’s obviously going to be perceived a conflict of interest. Obviously the players that the PPA is representing are a diverse group of people who have different interests. We all like poker, but what that means from a legislative perspective isn’t always clear, whereas the sites are a much more uniform group. So when PPA has to make decisions, people are naturally concerned that PPA will consider the sites’ interest. Would you say that the PPA does not consider the sites’ interests at all and never has?

JP: We’ve always considered the players’ interests and put those first, and I think that it’s been proven in things that the PPA has pushed for and has advocated for. I mean we’ve always argued for a f US licensed market where players can play, and I don’t know how that conflicts with what the players want.

NSD: I suppose that seems like more of a broad goal, and I’m sure the PPA is involved in a lot of more nuanced discussions, in which the sites and the players might not necessarily agree.

JP: I guess I would need an example.

NSD: Well, for example, the fifteen-month blackout period.6

JP: The sites opposed it; we opposed it; there was nothing we could do about it.

It was something that was pushed by other interests and that was included in the bill. That’s unfortunately part of the process here. We’re not going to get 100 percent of what we want. The PPA publicly said that we opposed it, and we told Senator Reid that we opposed it, and we continue to tell his office that we oppose it.

NSD: So, as far as the PPA was concerned, the sites and the players had pretty much uniformly aligned interests before Black Friday? Is that a fair characterization of what you’re saying?

JP: I would not say uniformly, but yes, for the most part, I think that they definitely had shared interests. The sites wanted to service the market, and the players wanted to play on the sites and welcomed additional competition.

Successes and Failures

NSD: Let’s end with a very general question: What successes has the PPA had since its inception? And, what failures has it had since its inception?

JP: Well, we’ve had numerous successes on the state level. There’s been attempts to criminalize online poker in Washington… [Pappas is inaudible here.]… and Massachusetts on two separate occasions, and because of the PPA’s lobbying and grassroots organization, we’ve thwarted those efforts and actually had that language removed from legislation that was moving in those states–in Massachusetts.7 We successfully defended the interests of brick-and-mortar, or home-game, poker players in South Carolina, where they were arrested for playing a $20 tournament. That case has gone all the way to the [South Carolina] Supreme Court with the government appealing against the winning decision of the PPA. We’re hopeful for a good decision there.8 We also have moved some legislation in the Massachusetts — or, sorry, in the South Carolina state senate, which would affirmatively legalize the ability of people who play poker in the privacy of their own home, and that bill is awaiting action in the House.9

On the federal level, we’ve pushed and had legislation introduced the last three congresses that would license and regulate internet poker. Every year, we’re gaining more and more support for it, culminating last year, with the bill being passed in bipartisan fashion out of committee.[10. Pappas is referring to last year's HR2267, the Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection, and Enforcement Act, whose chief proponent was Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts.] We’ve also come and done a good job of changing some of the key lawmakers’ minds on this issue, most notably Senator Harry Reid, who, along with the influence of the PPA and its membership, as well as some of the large home-based companies, have moved Senator Harry Reid from an opponent to an advocate.10 We’ve also done a lot of education with people like Senator John Kyl. John Kyl has been viewed as a villain of online poker for years, has now taken a more nuanced approach, and would possibly accept regulation of internet poker.11 And, that in itself is a huge success and has moved the ball forward tremendously to the overall goal of getting this done.

In terms of failures, obviously we’ve failed because we haven’t succeeded yet. But, I don’t consider that necessarily a failure. It’s just part of the process. It’s going to take some time. In Colorado, a case that we supported, we won at the trial level and then lost at the appellate level. We appealed it to the state supreme court, and the state supreme court didn’t hear our case. So I guess that could be considered a loss as well. But in terms of a specific failure, I think we’ve had setbacks but no particular failures. I think we’re still progressing in the right direction.

NSD: Thank you very much for taking the time to speak to Subject: Poker. That was absolutely wonderful.

Subject: Poker has many more interviews planned. If you have suggestions for other people to interview, please let us know in the comments, on Twitter or Facebook, or by e-mailing us at team@subjectpoker.com

Edited on 6/18/2011 5:47 AM EST: Corrected the position of a dash in the answer to the first question.

Footnotes

  1. Pappas is likely talking about HR4411 of 2006, the Internet Gambling Prohibition and Enforcement Act. This was a precursor to the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, which was much harsher and passed the House by a vote of 317 to 93. It was never voted on in the Senate.
  2. It’s a common practice for activist groups to take out ads in Washington D.C. newspapers that are widely read by congressmen, such as The Hill.
  3. The American Gaming Association is the primary lobbying group of the brick-and-mortar casinos in the US. Caesers Entertainment is the new name of Harrah’s Entertainment. Both the AGA and Caesars became open supporters of online gambling licensing and regulation in late 2010 after previously having been opposed to the idea.
  4. Pappas is referring to the draft of an internet poker bill proposed by Harry Reid last December. Leaked versions of the bill included a fifteen-month “blackout period” during which no future licensee would be allowed to service the US market. The bill was supported by the AGA and Caesars.
  5. Astroturf” is a term used to describe organizations that pretend to be driven by large popular support but are actually driven by narrower corporate or political interests.
  6. While both the sites and the players opposed this provision of the Reid bill, I meant to ask if PokerStars and Full Tilt may have had less of a problem with this than the PPA’s rank-and-file membership. I regret not getting a clearer answer for our readership here.
  7. Pappas is referring to Massachussets House Bill 4591 of 2010. This bill had specific language criminalizing players’ participation in internet gambling removed before it was passed.
  8. Pappas is referring to Town of Mt. Pleasant v. Chimento.
  9. See, for example, this article.
  10. A draft of a bill by Senator Reid that would license and regulate online poker was leaked in late 2010. Senator Reid is a Democrat, the senior senator from Nevada, and the Senate Majority Leader. His position changed after the AGA, Caesars, and a number of other Nevada-based companies changed theirs in late 2010.
  11. Senator Jon Kyl is the Republican junior senator from Arizona and is widely viewed as the major opponent of online gambling legislation. Kyl recently released the following statement: ”Efforts to carve out an exception for games like poker, which many believe is a game of skill, may be considered later this year. Until I have the chance to review them, I cannot make a judgment about their merits; but I will consider them carefully as long as they leave in place the broader proscriptions against online betting.”

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2 Responses to Interview with the PPA’s John Pappas- Part II

  1. sajeffe
    June 12, 2011 at 4:00 PM EDT

    Thanks for this article. It was very informative.

  2. Rodney de la Cruz
    June 14, 2011 at 3:08 PM EDT

    Poverty?

    So they are now bitching about poverty because the Poker Sites at the IGA have cut off funding?
    Don’t they have 1.2 million members? I’m a little upset that this man is has email addresses phone numbers and addresses of 1.2 million “members” and doesn’t mention once in his interview that he is going to structure a NRA type membership system to insure funding in the future. Woulda Coulda Shoulda about the Success or lack there off the the PPA’s efforts. It’s all bout the future and what you are doing TODAY for Poker in America. If all this “executive director” can do is give you a bunch of “you knows” maybe they need a better man for that tittle.

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