George Will

Howard Lederer, aka "the Professor," is a professional poker player, not a gambler. If Congress will acknowledge this distinction, it will rectify one of its recent mistakes.

In 2006, Congress, cloaking cunning with moralizing, effectively outlawed Internet gambling by making it illegal for banks or credit-card companies to process payments to online gambling operations. This was more than moral pork for social conservatives. It also blocked online competitors from poaching gamblers from the nation's most aggressive promoters of gambling -- state governments. They are increasingly addicted to revenues raised by lotteries -- the 42 states that have lotteries spent $520 million in 2007 promoting them -- and from taxation of other legal gambling. The law exempted Internet state lotteries and two powerful and vocal interests -- online betting on horse racing and some fantasy sports betting online.

Having turned gambling, which once was treated as a sin, into a social policy, government looks unusually silly criminalizing online forms of it.

Granted, some people gamble excessively (although not nearly as many people as eat excessively). Granted, gambling becomes addictive to a small minority (although it is not nearly as addictive as smoking and drinking).

Granted, gambling is morally dubious when it is only the unproductive pursuit of wealth without work (although gambling is productive of pleasure for tens of millions of Americans for whom it is a frequent pastime). But never mind whether government should try to tightly circumscribe a ubiquitous human activity that generally harms nobody.

That is beside the point Lederer and the Poker Players Alliance are toiling to make, which is that by sweeping online poker into its proscription of online gambling, Congress committed a category mistake.

Congress, Lederer thinks, should revisit the work of John von Neumann (1903-57), the Hungarian-born mathematician who, after working for the Manhattan Project on implosion design for the atomic bomb, became a defense intellectual specializing in the relevance of game theory to strategic thinking. Chess involves logic; roulette involves probability theory. Poker involves logic, probability and something pertinent to military and diplomatic strategy -- bluffing.


George Will

George F. Will is a 1976 Pulitzer Prize winner whose columns are syndicated in more than 400 magazines and newspapers worldwide.
 
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