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“The U.S. is Facebook’s largest market,” Mr. Keeble explained. “It would increase the potential upside massively.”

Clive Hawkswood, CEO of the Remote Gambling Association in London, said opening the U.S. market would help the industry expand.

“Companies like Facebook and Zynga already have a huge footprint in the USA and their brands are household names,” he said. “If they can establish the right partnerships, provide good gambling products, and convert even a fraction of their existing users, then they have every right to be optimistic.”

But many analysts think Facebook should leave the gambling business to the casinos. Beyond the moral objections, they say social networks are outmatched when it comes to online betting.

“I don’t understand why somebody who wants to gamble online would go to Facebook instead of or,” Mr. Stewart said. “That just makes no sense. That’s like going to Coca-Cola for a steak. It’s a funny business for them to think they can make a go at it.”

Mr. Keeble agreed that social networks such as Facebook can’t do it all by themselves.

“If a social media company intends to compete head-to-head with established gambling operators, they will find it much more difficult,” Mr. Keeble said. “Gambling operators know their market well.”

This has led some analysts to say Facebook or other social networking sites could make a go of it by finding a partner in the traditional gambling industry, one with a high name identification or brand recognition.

“The folks at Facebook are wicked smart, but the fact is you want to be with someone who’s been down the road and knows how to actually do it,” Mr. Stewart said.

Critics also say that Facebook’s searching for a new revenue stream is an acknowledgment that its current advertising-based business model isn’t working, Mr. McWilliams said.

“Gambling, I think, is the wrong decision,” he said. “It’s an admission of failure.”

While Facebook has a large group of users to draw from and some of the most popular applications involve gambling, games such as Zynga’s poker and blackjack are played only with fake money, like Monopoly in another era. Some in the gambling industry say users might be reluctant to play an online game with real money.

“Historically, the conversion of free play to real-money players has been relatively low,” said Simon Holliday, director of H2 Gambling Capital. “But the player traffic that these companies have access to means that even a small conversion would be significant to real money.”

Furthermore, Facebook getting into gambling could cause a public-relations problem for the company.

Critics with moral and philosophical objections to gambling say online wagering is even more likely to lead to addiction than traditional gambling because of the constant access provided by being in the home. Facebook-played games such as Angry Birds and Zynga’s FarmVille have become national punch lines for their “addictive” quality, but they are not played for cash.

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