JASON SOMERVILLE, a professional poker player, could see that all the cards had been dealt and the final board was 3, 4, 5, 6, 3. Mr Somerville had an ace and a king. His opponent paused. He was down to the final five seconds of his time bank before he finally bet. That could have meant one of two things. Either it was a hard decision, or he was distracted.
Had the game been in a casino, Mr Somerville would have been able to see which. But it was online, so he couldn’t. Instead, he took into account how quickly the game had progressed previously, and called. He was right, and he won.
The best online poker players learn to decipher betting patterns as shrewdly as their offline peers read faces. Mr Somerville, for example, has won $US2.3m over the past decade. But he has lost a packet, too: not only from losing but also because, until recently, he had little recourse when the people he beat did not pay up.
America tends to ban online gambling rather than regulate it. Since the Justice Department indicted popular gambling websites such as Full Tilt Poker and PokerStars in 2011, millions of Americans have turned to illegal betting sites. An estimated 1,700 offshore sites handle bets worth more than $US4 billion a year. They offer scant safeguards for players; nor do they effectively keep out children.
Some states are trying to fix this mess. In February Nevada legalised online gambling. Within three months UltimatePoker.com, currently the only legal real-money online poker site, was open for business in the Silver State. New Jersey and Delaware have also approved online gambling in the past two years. Several other states are following. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Texas are working to legalise online gambling this year.
At the federal level, not much will change. In June Peter King, a Republican congressman from New York, introduced a bill to legalise most online gambling and set up a federal regulator, but it is unlikely to pass. No matter: the American Gaming Association, a casino-industry group, noted in a recent report that “all of our industry experts foresee the US market increasing in size over the next five years”as a result of some states legalising online gambling.
Mr Somerville, meanwhile, has moved from his native New York to Nevada. He says he finds the regulations there reassuring “after all the years of basically wild wild West [online] poker”.
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