- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2011

D.C. Lottery officials are gearing up for unprecedented gambling over the Internet through “demonstration games” that will allow players to get their feet wet before wagering real dollars.

The lottery will roll out six games - including blackjack, Texas hold ‘em and bingo - to kick-start the District’s plans to be the first jurisdiction in the country to offer regulated gambling on home computers and public terminals known as “platinum sponsors,” according to rules published in the D.C. Register.

Players must be 19 or older and log on from within the District’s borders, according to the rules. They cannot create more than one online account or let another person use theirs.

Online gambling has been a hot topic in the District for several months, after council member Michael A. Brown in December slipped an amendment into a larger budget bill to authorize it.

The measure survived a congressional review period that expired in April, giving the program a green light barring intervention from Capitol Hill. Federal lawmakers may still intervene through legislation or riders that restrict the spending of federal funds.

A bill introduced by Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, and John Campbell, California Republican, in March would legalize and regulate Internet gambling, yet it does not apply to state and tribal lotteries.

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. has said publicly that he would not support efforts to legalize online gambling, a position taken by many state attorneys general.

Any effort to implement online gambling would have to comply with the federal Johnson Act, which generally prohibits the manufacture, possession, use, sale or transportation of any gambling device in the District of Columbia.

While serving as D.C. attorney general, Peter J. Nickles argued that the District’s gambling law would need to clear multiple federal legal hurdles before online gambling could start. The current attorney general, Irvin B. Nathan, has declined to comment on whether he has undertaken a legal review.

Despite questions over its legality and the uncertainty over how or whether members of Congress may intervene, the rules published on Friday appeared to signal the first movement on actual games in the District.

“That’s exactly what it is,” Mr. Brown, at-large independent, said Monday.

The demo games are expected to go live in four to six weeks ahead of pay games this fall, Mr. Brown said. They will be free, employing a point system in lieu of wagers, and designed to let players get accustomed to the games while officials iron out any bugs in the system.

“It’s important to make sure the technology is correct,” Mr. Brown said. Security systems, for instance, must ensure “that people can’t hack in from outside D.C.”

From the start, Mr. Brown has argued that online gambling will bring millions of dollars in revenue to the District by harnessing a hobby that is unregulated yet goes on anyway with no realized benefit to the city.

The base age is intended to keep high school students from logging on, without excluding the college market, he said.

According to published plans, classic gambling games such as poker will be joined by electronic instant tickets, random-number games and “Victory at Sea,” a game akin to the board game “Battleship,” Mr. Brown said.

The council member declined to name exact dates for launch of the free and pay games or the expected revenue over time, citing the unprecedented nature of the games.

“It’s not like you can take the state of Ohio and say, ‘Let’s shrink the demographics down and get an estimate,’ ” he said.

Council member Jack Evans, Ward 2 Democrat and chairman of the Committee on Finance and Revenue, has scheduled a hearing on D.C. Lottery’s online plans for June 29.

Mr. Evans noted that the measure was put into the budget bill late last year without public vetting, so it seemed appropriate to schedule testimony from the District’s chief financial officer, attorney general and others to explore how online gambling will work and why no one else in the country has done it, among other issues.

“It’s all those kinds of questions,” he said.