Lakeland resident and Emory University student Tim Kopcial won almost $50,000 playing online poker his freshman year of college. But with a new bill passed by the United States Senate, Kopcial's luck may have run out.
The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was added onto the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act, expected to be signed into law by President Bush on October 13th. Though the bill doesn't explicitly outlaw most major forms of online gambling, it prohibits credit card companies and other payment providers from processing online gambling transactions.
The bill's passage was sparked in part by horror stories about the prevalence of online gambling, especially among college students. The country was shocked late last year when Greg Hogan, a class president at his university and the son of a minister, robbed a bank to pay gambling debts he accrued during his freshman year. An estimated 1.6 million of the nation's 17 million college students have gambled on the Internet at least once.
Andrew Meyers, director of the University of Memphis Gambling Clinic, attests that gambling addiction is a very real issue.
"When you look at the numbers, it's pretty startling," he says. "One to 2 percent of all Americans have a serious gambling problem, and another 3 to 5 percent have some degree of damage in their lives due to gambling."
Those gambling addicts who use the Internet can be especially difficult to treat.
"It's very fast-paced, especially sports betting. You can lose a lot of money very, very quickly, and there's no human element present to help spot an addiction," says Meyers. Still, he says, the Senate measure may be an overreaction. "In other countries, [online gambling] doesn't seem to present the threat that it does to the United States. I suspect that the legislation has more to do with economic concerns than it does a moral attitude."
Congressman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who pushed through an anti-online-gambling bill in the House earlier this year, says the Senate measure should prevent some of the $6 billion from "getting sucked out of the economy."
Gamers themselves are receiving the news with mixed reactions, though many are looking to fight the legislation. The Poker Players' Alliance argues that poker -- the most popular form of online gaming -- is a skill-based game that should be exempted from the provisions of the bill.
Others say that the issue isn't worth fighting because it is so difficult to enforce. Many avid gamers stopped using credit cards years ago, opting to route their funds through payment services such as BillPay.
"There are so many alternate means of payment that it is not going to stop what is happening here," says Frank Catania, former director of gaming enforcement in New Jersey and president of Catania Consulting Group. "We are going to be spending a lot of money for enforcement, and it is going to be worthless."
As for Lakeland's Kopcial, he doesn't see it affecting him. "I'm over it," he says.