Falling tourism numbers could push state all in on poker

By Tim Sakahara - bio | email

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The disaster in Japan has it's affect on Hawaii tourism. Next month arrivals from Japan are expected to be down 45 percent.  That has some budget-crunched lawmakers thinking poker tournaments aren't such a bad idea after all, but it's a gamble others are not willing to take.

The poker bill going through the capitol is not a lottery or casino.  That means no slot machines, blackjack or scratcher tickets.  It's one player versus other players and they collect from each other not a house.

Poker tournaments have gained huge popularity and the idea is to bring a tournament event to Hawaii.  In order to do it a company would have to buy a $100 million license and pay annual fees thereafter.

"The World Series of Poker, it's the idea you bring a tournament of professional players here on a semi regular basis, you get free marketing by way of the television shots of the tournament and it fills the hotel rooms," said State Representative Angus McKelvey, (D) Lahaina, Kapalua, Kihei.

The other part of the bill is allowing the company to host poker tournaments online like what you see on the Full Tilt Poker website where at any given moment there could be 100,000 people playing on 36,000 tables.  The poker company also claims it can block anybody in Hawaii from playing as a safeguard against bringing any negatives to the state.

"Part two is the internet game to game, you have people from around the world competing against each other. They're not physically in Hawaii, the only thing in Hawaii is a giant computer server sitting in a warehouse somewhere," said McKelvey.

A consultant for Full Tilt Poker says the company already has an office set up in downtown Honolulu so if the poker bill passes they'll be up and running right away.  He wouldn't tell me the address just yet, but they do have accountants and marketing people working here now. It's a small office, but they are capable of expanding.

"If they already have an office here and they've got some personnel they stand to make an awful lot of money. They're going to profit from this," said Violet Horvath, Hawaii Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.

Opponents say peer to peer poker is still a game of chance not skill and even though card rooms won't be allowed other gambling problems will pop up.

"Generally once there is a foot hold the door busts open and once a foot hold is established it's almost impossible to get rid of it, impossible to turn back once it gets going," said Horvath.

So what are the odds the peer to peer poker bill will pass?

"Very slim. I wouldn't be, no pun intended, putting any cards down on the bill right now but at least we had the discussion," said McKelvey.

The poker bill needs to go to the house finance committee and must get a hearing by April 8 or it will fold for this session.

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