- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

Online poker was dealer’s choice for many Washington-area residents who stayed home this week to wait out cold weather and inauguration-related traffic tie-ups and security snarls.

Empire Poker, which bills itself as the world’s largest online poker room, said its Washington-area activity rose 28 percent yesterday. The company is betting that local residents upped their ante while they worked from home instead of heading downtown.

“We saw a peculiar uptick in our D.C.-area players and realized that it corresponded to the weather and the inauguration,” said Ron Burke, Empire Poker president.

The company said its District-area traffic has climbed steadily all week — slightly Monday, by 11 percent Tuesday and 18 percent Wednesday. This week’s profits from the District will be about equal to the state of Massachusetts, Empire said without providing specific dollar or user figures.

Online gambling is a multibillion-dollar industry. Worldwide Internet wagers reached $5.7 billion in 2003 and are projected to hit $16.9 billion by 2009, according to Christiansen Capital Advisors, a gambling and entertainment industry consulting group.

Christiansen estimates that of almost 12 million Internet gamblers worldwide, about 4.5 million were from the United States.

Poker is especially popular, with shows such as ESPN’s “The World Series of Poker” and Bravo’s “Celebrity Poker Showdown” drawing attention to the game.

Coupled with easy Internet access, sites such as Empire Poker, Party Poker and Poker Stars can cash in.

Despite rising popularity, some online gambling might run afoul of the law.

“It’s a legal gray area right now with regard to that,” conceded Kevin A. Mercuri, a vice president with 5W Public Relations, a company seeking publicity for Empire.

Many popular sites have incorporated overseas — Empire in Cyprus, for example — to stay out of reach of sometimes unclear U.S. laws on online wagering.

But the Justice Department has gone after U.S. companies that carry ads for the international sites and banks that allow their credit cards to be used for international gambling transactions.

The agency is concerned that online gambling could allow minors to wager and that there is potential for fraud, money laundering and infiltration by organized crime.

The U.S. restrictions on online gambling have riled other governments, which rake in taxes from online casinos. The tiny Caribbean nation Antigua and Barbuda, a hotbed of Internet gambling, filed a case at the World Trade Organization, and in November, the WTO said U.S. limits on foreign online casinos violate global trade rules.

The Bush administration has appealed, saying it has the right “to protect public morals and public order.”

Empire’s statistics show that in the nation’s capital, public morals might have been dealt a weak hand during the country’s quadrennial celebration of power and democracy.

“More federal employees are telecommuting and playing some poker on the side. Many accounts that are only active in the evening [this week] are being used during business hours,” Mr. Burke said.

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