The legislative dominoes that were supposed to fall across America once New Jersey went online are still standing, and with internet gambling largely a bust in its most populous state to date, hopes for a vibrant US industry again are shifting West, to California, and to a small Indian tribe that is poised to put those hopes to the test sooner than anyone expected.
Two bills to legalize internet poker in the country’s biggest potential market have been circulating since early this year, but as with similar measures in past sessions, neither is likely to go anywhere until leaders of the various factions within California’s powerful tribal casino industry agree on how to divide the pie and protect their lucrative land-based businesses from online competition.
A San Diego tribe with no seat at the big table is tired of waiting and has set up its own poker site and supporting infrastructure and announced this month that it plans to go live for real money at a room called Privatetable.com.
“It’s going to offer folks the first legal, regulatory, vetted Internet poker,” said David Vialpando, chairman of the gaming commission of the Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel, a federally recognized tribe with 950 members and a 15,000-acre reservation in the mountains of North San Diego County.
The Iipay had a casino, The Santa Ysabel, which opened in 2007, but it shut down earlier this year, leaving the tribe deep in debt. Vialpando says the tribe needs the revenue to rebuild aging roads, buildings and the reservation’s fire station and fund community programs and education.
The Iipay have a letter of support from the government of the Isle of Man, a respected international licensing and hosting e-gaming jurisdiction which gave its formal recognition earlier this year to a fledgling group called the Tribal Internet Gaming Alliance (TIGA). The alliance to date counts only two Minnesota tribes as members, but it’s not without symbolic significance, and it does open up the possibility of interstate compacts with other tribes and possibly international collaborations.
“We are hoping that the state uses our experience here at Santa Ysabel to help them craft the framework for internet gaming,” Vialpando said.
At the least, Privatetable.com would provide an early glimpse into the economic realities of online poker in California, the most populous state in the country and the wealthiest—the one state, perhaps the only one, where nearly everyone agrees an intrastate market would thrive.
If the Iipay do take the plunge, only residents of California will be allowed to play for real money, and they will need to be at least 18 years old and physically located within the state.
This is not to say the operation would be on safe legal grounds by any means.
The tribe is relying on poker’s status as a Class II game under the U.S. Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA)—which is to say, it’s not a house-banked casino game and not dependent therefore on a tribal-state compact under the terms of the Act. The legal advice the tribe has taken is that since IGRA allows tribes to regulate and offer gaming on tribal lands as a matter of sovereignty, and since there is no specific prohibition on online poker in California, Privatetable.com is “in compliance with both state and federal law”.
“Some legal commentators believe that limitations in tribal-state regulatory compacts and provisions in the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act limit the ability of tribes to accept wagers from off Indian lands,” Los Angeles-based gaming attorney Ian Imrich told OnlinePokerReport.
“They also argue that IGRA must be amended in order to address internet gaming in this setting,” he said.
Imrich believes a real-money launch will almost certainly trigger a legal challenge from the state and/or the federal government over issues that will be “hotly contested,” he said.
“Legal issues over the nature and extent of tribal sovereignty to offer Class II gaming via the Internet, where the gaming actually takes place (i.e., on tribal servers or otherwise), and whether IGRA authorizes or proscribes such online poker will become front and center.”
Which could be why the Iipay haven’t launched. The tribe promised in mid-July 2014 that Privatetable would be taking bests “within a matter of days”.