BISSEX: Net Bets

People have been gambling a long time. The Germans were running lotteries five hundred years ago, and surely there were organized wagers long before that, when currency was still in unwieldy forms like goats and pigs.Now, in the age of paperless money, you can gamble without getting up from your chair. Internet gambling ("Click here to place your bet!") has arrived. Many lawmakers are poised to crush this burgeoning form of recreational money-wasting. There are active bills in both the House and the Senate which seek to make all Internet gambling illegal. Not just more tightly regulated -- completely illegal.Ironically, electronic bets were pioneered by state-sanctioned forms of gambling. New York State has long had off-track-betting (OTB) offices where one can watch, and bet on, the horses via closed-circuit television. Massachusetts has filled its bars with monitors enticing drinkers to play "Keno" 12 times an hour. In states with lotteries, machines that process the tickets and submit the bets to a central computer are everywhere.The booming Net has drastically increased the number and variety of remote gambling experiments. There will be shakeouts later, but today, ignoring the legal concerns, anybody who can set up a Web site and process a credit card transaction can be an online casino.This is worrisome to some regulators, accustomed to having tight control over would-be gamblers within their jurisdictions. Missouri residents have an especially zealous defender of virtue, state Attorney General Jeremiah Nixon, who has reached far beyond Missouri's borders in his quest to stamp out illegal gambling (or, as critics have it, to protect the legal gambling interests within his state). Earlier this year, Nixon successfully hit a Pennsylvania online gambling company called Interactive Gaming and Communications (IGC) with a $66,500 fine; then, when the company balked, he got a felony indictment of IGC's president from a grand jury.IGC's operations are registered in Grenada, where laws governing gambling are lax. The company is, to use the current mantra of grey-market gambling, "off-shore," insulated from hostile US prosecutors. Or so the theory goes. The legal reality, in which IGC's president may be extradited to Missouri, shows that being off-shore is far from a perfect defense, especially if part of your business is run from the US.In trying to decipher the regulatory zeal, it's instructive to follow the money. The domestic legal gambling industry contributed a total of about $3.5 million to both Democrats and Republicans in the 1995Ð1996 campaign year. They would like to hold onto the $40 billion profit they make annually (on around $550 billion in wagers). And their host states would like to hold onto the resulting tax revenue.The fact that more and more hotel rooms in Las Vegas are going empty these days can't be blamed on the puny Net gambling market yet, but in a few years when hotel stock prices plummet the fingers may point not to troubled Asian financial markets or intense competition from Atlantic City, but to the fevered clicking of mice and the glow of onscreen playing cards.It's said that back when the refrigerator was invented, the huge, well-established ice companies didn't really know what to do. They saw their business as providing blocks of ice rather than as helping keep food cold; they stuck to selling ice, and eventually they disappeared.Likewise the established gambling interests, who seem to be forgetting that their $40 billion empire is cramped in tiny, odd legal pigeonholes (gambling on boats but not on land?), may miss out. You would think that expanding their market to anyone in the world with a credit card would be a hot goal. Instead, they're stuck on what they know. They might as well start paying bets in goats.Sidebar OneSites in my SightsOK, so you want to see this Internet gambling stuff for yourself. Don't blame me if you end up with a third mortgage on your house and a maxed-out credit card. You can get a taste of online wagering at places like Virtual Vegas (www.virtualvegas.com) and Casino.com (www.casino.com).Don't Just Sit There, Sit There and Do SomethingIt's not all fun and gaming, of course. There are some good arguments for resisting commercial and state-run gambling, whether or not it is made illegal. You have your choice of the political mode, in the form of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling (web.iquest.net/cpage/ncalg/), or the personal mode, in the form of Gamblers Anonymous (www.gamblersanonymous.org/).I bet you can't guess how many fingers I'm holding up. Send a letter in care of this publication, drop a line via e-mail (pb@well.com), or visit the Cyberia website (www.well.com/user/pb/cyb).

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