Poker Night with Raymer, Ferguson, and Lederer

Last evening, I played poker with legendary players Greg Raymer, Chris Ferguson, and Howard Lederer at the University Club in DC. I did so at the invitation of Mike Krempasky along with Radley Balko, Kevin Aylward, Cam Edwards, Marshall Manson, Julian Sanchez, birthday girl Mary Katharine Ham, Nick Gillespie, and others.

James Joyner and Howard Lederer Playing Poker At right, I’m getting schooled by “The Professor.” Krempasky has more photos at flickr.

As Wonk noted yesterday in “outing” the event, it was sponsored by Poker Players’ Alliance. As Washington Whispers reported recently, Raymer, Ferguson, and Lederer don’t play no money poker with a bunch of bloggers too often.

Between them, they’ve won millions of dollars and countless poker tournaments with their tricks and strategy, but when the game’s Big Three storm Washington next week to fight an online gambling ban, they won’t be bluffing about how bad the impact could be. To stop the steamrolling legislation, poker royalty Greg Raymer, Chris Ferguson, and Howard Lederer will meet this week with lawmakers, staff, and even war vets at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to build support for online gambling. “This is a truly American tradition. Truman played. Departed Chief Justice William Rehnquist had games in chambers,” argues Michael Bolcerek of the Poker Player’s Alliance. His compromise with the gambling foes: Regulate it, tax it, “but don’t treat poker players like al Qaeda.”

The bill in question is HR 4777, the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act, sponsored by Bob Goodlatte (R, VA-6). Balko summarized the basic provisions a few weeks ago:

[N]ot only does it ban online gambling, it also bans linking to sites where online gambling takes place. And not only that, but the bill requires financial institutions to set up invasive (and, most say, impossible to implement) mechanisms to track every financial transaction you make. Particularly bothersome are ACH transactions, the favored method of payment at most gaming sites. ACH transactions leave a more generic paper trail than credit card transactions. For banks to get to the point where they could track these kinds of transactions would require a level of familiarity and intimacy with your buying habits that ought to make all but the most ardent police-staters skittish. One gaming industry rep describes the requirement as “know your customer on steroids.”

The San Francisco Chronicle‘s Ed Epstein had a longish piece in yesterday’s edition.

America’s 70 million poker players say they aren’t bluffing in their resistance to the latest congressional efforts to ban online casino gambling. To dramatize that determination, their leader, San Franciscan Michael Bolcerek — president of the national Poker Players Alliance — staged some most unusual events on Capitol Hill Tuesday. He brought three big-name professional poker stars to court the press, lobby with members of Congress and attend an evening reception for members and their staffs at which a few hands of Texas Hold ‘Em were probably played. Not for money, of course.

Congress is considering legislation that seeks either to get banks to block customers’ transactions with overseas Internet gambling sites or force Internet service providers to block access to poker Web sites. Poker players say the proposed bans attack nothing less than the American way of life. “I’d hate for 70 million poker players to wake up one day and learn that their game has been made illegal,” said pro Howard Lederer, who with his sister Annie Duke forms a sister-brother pro duo in a sport that has become a TV staple the last few years.


“Poker is an American tradition. It has its roots in New Orleans, just like jazz. Many presidents played, including Gen. Grant, Harry Truman and Richard Nixon. So did Chief Justice William Rehnquist,” said Bolcerek, a longtime high-tech executive who took up his post as paid president of the 20,000-member alliance just a few months ago.

After last night’s game, Lederer sounded like a Cato Fellow in his argument against the bill. His primary objection was libertarian. Not only should people be allowed to chose their own recreation, the nature of the Internet is such that effective regulation of its use requires an invasion of the citizens’ privacy scarcely imaginable.

The argument against this position is the argument against all gambling:

Sponsors of the legislation cite several reasons for their proposed crackdown, an idea that has been approved by both houses in Congress in the past, but not in the identical form required for sending legislation to the president. They say the lure of games that people can play at home on their computers is addictive and could be financially ruinous.

The bills’ supporters also say the games present unfair competition for the regulated, taxed and legal bricks-and-mortar casinos and card clubs. And they say prosecutors have tied online gambling to money laundering and even potentially to terrorist financing. They also say the ease of online betting makes it all too easy for underage players to get deep into debt. “This is the most addictive form of gambling that’s even been invented,” said David Robertson, former chairman of the National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling. “You’ve got a casino in your home now,” added Robertson, of Cody, Wyo. “You don’t have to get in your car or go somewhere”

Except, as Aylward notes,

[A]ll the monied domestic interested – state lotteries, casinos, Indian tribes, horse racing, etc. managed to get themselves excluded. Gambling, in one form or another, is allowed in nearly every state in the union – often sponsored by the state; yet we’ve driven the online gaming industry overseas. One could argue whether that is good or bad thing, but there’s no arguing that the opportunity cost of the potential to tax that industry is staggering.

Quite so. And it’s not some desperate Third World countries hosting the prominent gaming sites but the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

Regardless, as Lederer argues, even if you believe gambling needs to be regulated, poker deserves to be treated differently than, say, roulette or slot machines. (Let alone, I would add, the lottery.) Why? Because, unlike most gambling forms, poker does not promise easy money if one’s luck just has a good turn. As someone (Manson perhaps) observed last night, there’s no World Series of Roulette.

Indeed, as Mark Twain told us in 1870, poker is not a game of luck at all . . . it’s a game of science.

THE GALAXY, October 1870


At that time, in Kentucky (said the Hon. Mr. Knott M. C.), the law was very strict against what it termed “games of chance.” About a dozen of the boys were detected playing “seven-up” or “old sledge” for money, and the grand jury found a true bill against them. Jim Sturgis was retained to defend them when the case came up, of course. The more he studied over the matter and looked into the evidence, the plainer it was that he must lose a case at last — there was no getting around that painful fact. Those boys had certainly been betting money on a game of chance. Even public sympathy was roused in behalf of Sturgis. People said it was a pity to see him mar his successful career with a big prominent case like this, which must go against him.

But after several restless nights an inspired idea flashed upon Sturgis, and he sprang out of bed delighted. He thought he saw his way through. The next day he whispered around a little among his clients and a few friends, and then when the case came up in court he acknowledged the seven-up and the betting, and, as his sole defence, had the astounding effrontery to put in the plea that old sledge was not a game of chance! There was the broadest sort of a smile all over the faces of that sophisticated audience. The judge smiled with the rest. But Sturgis maintained a countenance whose earnestness was even severe. The opposite counsel tried to ridicule him out of his position, and did not succeed. The judge jested in a ponderous judicial way about the thing, but did not move him. The matter was becoming grave. The judge lost a little of his patience, and said the joke had gone far enough. Jim Sturgis said he knew of no joke in the matter — his clients could not be punished for indulging in what some people chose to consider a game of chance, until it was proven that it was a game of chance. Judge and counsel said that would be an easy matter, and forthwith called Deacons Job, Peters, Burke, and Johnson, and Dominies Wirt and Miggles, to testify; and they unanimously and with strong feeling put down the legal quibble of Sturgis, by pronouncing that old sledge was a game of chance.

“What do you call it now!” said the judge.

“I call it a game of science!” retorted Sturgis; “and I’ll prove it, too!”

They saw his little game.

He brought in a cloud of witnesses, and produced an overwhelming mass of testimony, to show that old sledge was not a game of chance, but a game of science.

Instead of being the simplest case in the world, it had somehow turned out to be an excessively knotty one. The judge scratched his head over it a while, and said there was no way of coming to a determination, because just as many men could be brought into court who would testify on one side, as could be found to testify on the other. But he said he was willing to do the fair thing by all parties, and would act upon any suggestion Mr. Sturgis would make for the solution of the difficulty.

Mr. Sturgis was on his feet in a second:

“Impanel a jury of six of each, Luck versus Science — give them candles and a couple of decks of cards, send them into the jury room, and just abide by the result!”

There was no disputing the fairness of the proposition. The four deacons and the two dominies were sworn in as the “chance” jurymen, and six inveterate old seven-up professors were chosen to represent the “science” side of the issue. They retired to the jury room.

In about two hours, Deacon Peters sent into court to borrow three dollars from a friend. [Sensation.] In about two hours more, Dominie Miggles sent into court to borrow a “stake” from a friend. [Sensation.] During the next three or four hours, the other dominie and the other deacons sent into court for small loans. And still the packed audience waited, for it was a prodigious occasion in Bull’s Corners, and one in which every father of a family was necessarily interested.

The rest of the story can be told briefly. About daylight the jury came in, and Deacon Job, the foreman, read the following


We, the jury in the case of the Commonwealth of Kentucky vs. John Wheeler et al., have carefully considered the points of the case, and tested the merits of the several theories advanced, and do hereby unanimously decide that the game commonly known as old sledge or seven-up is eminently a game of science and not of chance. In demonstration whereof, it is hereby and herein stated, iterated, reiterated, set forth, and made manifest, that, during the entire night, the “chance” men never won a game or turned a jack, although both feats were common and frequent to the opposition; and further more, in support of this our verdict, we call attention to the significant fact that the “chance” men are all busted, and the “science” men have got the money. It is the deliberate opinion of this jury that the “chance” theory concerning seven-up is a pernicious doctrine, and calculated to inflict untold suffering and pecuniary loss upon any community that takes stock in it.

“That is the way that seven-up came to be set apart and particularized in the statute books of Kentucky as being a game not of chance but of science, and therefore not punishable under the law,” said Mr. Knott. “That verdict is of record, and holds good to this day.”

This might explain why guys like Raymer, Ferguson, and Lederer — a patent attorney, computer science/AI PhD, and Columbia grad/chess prodigy, respectively — dominate it.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.