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The Flames Are Spreading - More Niche Groups Rise Up Against UIGEA...By Nelson Lardner

I shook my fist in delighted recognition when I read about Democratic Representative Bob Wexler's piecing together yet another piece of proposed legislation in response to last fall's stealth-passage of that evangelical delight, the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act of 2006.

According to Wexler's press office, the Dem from Florida's 19th district (representing such upscale communities as West Palm Beach and Boca Raton, in addition to well-known outposts as Pompano Beach and North Lauderdale) is another looking to champion unfettered access to online poker for dollars. A article appearing online this week further notes a possible broadening of horizons, throwing parallel games of skill, such as mahjongg and contract bridge, into the mix.

It's hard to imagine a game such as mahjongg being an online-gaming livewire. One of the great home-entertainment fads of the 1920's, the tile-based table game, traditionally contested by four players, has never regained the popularity it enjoyed during that roaring decade, but maintains millions of adherents, with its demographic strongly skewed towards women of "a certain age" and beyond. Contract bridge, a wildly more popular game than auction bridge, its predecessor, gained full flower in this country in the late 20's and early '30s, maintained its broad popularity for the next 40 years (leading bridge author Charles Goren enjoyed a bridge column in Sports Illustrated, of all places, well into the '60s) and maintains a fanatical international following in the tens of millions. It's also long been a superb gambling game, either played straight, or by signaling and/or voice-inflecting hustlers who can and have run wild, fleecing the unwary in casually-policed games.

This is a hoot. Who knew that all those Tuesday-afternoon mahjongg-party ladies in Miami and Vegas were gung-ho about their internet gaming rights? Not I. And I wouldn't dream of playing contract bridge on line, for any significant stakes. As in poker, the chances of running up against critical instant-messaging and/or phone collusion by shyster partnerships is too great, and rises exponentially with the size of the stakes.

But I'll defend to the death the rights of interested parties to bid, double, redouble, finesse, crossruff and sluff to their hearts' content, for as much as they feel comfortable putting at risk. And therein lay the point.

Like legal homosexual unions, online gaming is a freedom issue. There are millions of U. S. citizens who have no use for either. There are myriad reasons folks may expouse while feeling that way, and people are entitled to feel that way. But personal abstention is one thing. Telling another person that you're going to go out of your way to keep him from doing something he might like to do, even though his action is not harming you (the person looking to impose new and restrictive rules, to be enacted into law), is quite another.

The UIGEA is ugly, sloppily-written, brutish law, broadly inimical to the best of what comprises our national character. But it's on the books . . . put there by a shady crowd with shadowy motives . . . a mob which has been defeated and dispersed, to a significant degree.

The current crowd is currently preoccupied with a far bigger fish in the fryer - the Immigration Reform Act of 2007. Currently, it's each Senator's turn to do his or her individual tap dance, looking to please the special-interest groups that bankroll their campaigns - and, yes, even their constituencies, such as circumstances will allow. After much debating, cutting, and pasting, expect some semblance of legislation to pass the Senate. The House could be a much-different story, and in any event, don't anticipate any significant House action on this measure before midsummer . . . too much work to do, too many angles to check and re-check.

So Barney Frank's 2007 gaming bill, currently stalled in the House, will not be a top priority. But adherents of it - or of the approval of a serious year-long study of legalized gambling in the states - are growing in numbers, day by day. This truism is making many of the hidebound reactionaries (who cheered when the UIGEA slithered its way into law) sweat. Exhibit A: Kansas Senator Sam (Evolution? Don't believe in it!) Brownback, clearly worried about Treasury enforcement standards regarding the muddily-written, vague UIGEA legislation, has been hectoring Treasury higher-ups earlier this month, anxious about final UIGEA enforcement provisions. Flunkies associated with James Dobson's Focus on the Family have joined in the bluenose-blowhard chorus. It's great to see such William Jennings Bryan-wannabees as Brownback get antsy, as they sense a change in the wind unfavorable to their pandering self-perpetuation. Brownback may have much of Kansas conned, but a comfortable majority of Americans are well-aware when authority has grossly-overstepped reasonable bounds. Restriction-minded luddites have never held sway over the bulk of the U. S. for long. Better days are coming.

Nelson Lardner

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