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Casinos in Space

online casinos
Bet The House: With Internet pay-for-fun gambling sites sprouting up all over the Web, can the real thing be far away? Groups like Gamblers Anonymous worry that compulsive betters could spend long nights gambling away their salaries and perhaps even their homes.



Online gambling is hitting the Internet in a big way, and both players and gambling site operators are seeking to cash in. Could this herald the end of Reno as we know it? And who will be the winners and losers?

By Stephen Hait

I'M SITTING AT MY COMPUTER. My palms are sweating. I'm up $1,100 at the blackjack table. I'd really be excited if it were real money I was winning. But it's not. It's play money. I'm "gambling" at the International Gaming Corporation's Global Casino located in cyberspace. I started with a $1,000 "stake" they gave me to try out a demo version of their online casino games. Now I've more than doubled my "money" and I can't seem to stop.

Online gambling--what an incredibly obvious concept. Potential gambling site operators seeking to cash in are licking their lips in anticipation of what, to them, looks like the ultimate application for the Internet. Forget about online shopping-- this has mother lode written all over it! "Find a way to bet on the Internet, and you've got a gold mine," says Eamonn Wilmott, who is developing an online gambling site.

Add to this the incredible savings in start-up and operating expenses for an online gaming venture. There are no costs to construct and maintain a multimillion-dollar casino, and there are no dealers and other traditional casino workers to pay. The whole operation can be set up for the price of a few computers and some software.

United States casino revenue has more than doubled in the last five years, exceeding $20 billion in 1995. International Gaming & Wagering Business, an industry journal, estimates more than $500 billion was wagered legally in the U.S. in 1996, with around 8 percent--or $40 billion--kept by casinos, racetracks and others. If Internet gambling can glean just a small percentage of this bonanza, it could represent a huge proportion of all income generated online.

While the potential revenue is definitely a draw for those contemplating entering this relatively untapped market, another is the lack of regulation. The Interstate Wire Act of 1961, 18 U.S.C. 1084, which addresses the transmittal of wagering information by interstate and international wire facilities, was initially drafted to target bookmakers and organized crime involved with sports betting. But the World Wide Web has changed the playing field. It's unclear, in the environment of the Internet, what is legal and what is not, where jurisdictions start and stop.

Various commissions are hurriedly studying the Wire Act to determine its deficiencies in allowing government to regulate and tax. Craig I. Fields, who helped create the Internet, has said, "We built it to be Russian-proof, but it turned out to be regulator-proof."

One attempt to rein in this emerging industry is occurring in Minnesota, where officials there have sued a Nevada company ready to offer sports betting online at Wager Net. Minnesota claims it constitutes consumer fraud to advertise--wrongly, by the way--that the system is legal. And Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl proposed a bill in 1996, which was later killed, that would have made all Internet gambling illegal.

This and similar attempts at preemptive legislation and control have helped to push some electronic gambling ventures offshore to a variety of locations with laxer laws, such as Belize and Grenada. The hope is that, whatever the laws become in the United States, it will be next to impossible to enforce them on foreign soil.

A Great Temptation

BUT ONLINE wagering is being developed at a time when gambling is receiving greater acceptance from government. The advent of the modern lottery in the 1970s has made these forms of gambling so ubiquitous that many states' budgets are totally reliant on the income generated from lottos. What lawmakers are saying, in effect, is that it's OK to gamble with us but not OK to gamble with someone else.

Concerns of gambling becoming too accessible are also surfacing. To people involved with organizations such as Gamblers Anonymous and the Compulsive Gambling Center in Baltimore, Md., the fear is that anyone with access to a computer can gamble 24 hours a day in total privacy and without fear of recrimination. The temptation to gamble compulsively for some people would be just too great to resist. These organizations would like to see the entire industry just go away.

Potential gamers are concerned about the trustworthiness of on-line betting parlors. With electronic gaming establishments essentially existing everywhere and nowhere at all, how can you be sure that if you win you can collect? The same lack of regulation that draws businesses into the on-line gambling business results in little or no regulatory protection from the consumer's standpoint. And what's to stop the virtual casino from adjusting the software to introduce unfair odds for its customers?

In order for electronic gambling operations to be successful they will need to develop an image of reliability, as well as legality, before huge numbers of people begin entrusting to them their bets on sporting events or casino games.

Currently there are just a handful of virtual casinos taking real bets. Most online gaming sites have just a billboard storefront with, perhaps, some demo versions of what the electronic gambling experience will be like when they go live. Most of these run excruciatingly slowly over a modem and will probably need significant improvements before they can really be expected to take off.

One of the best sites is Gamble Net at the URL mentioned above. Gamble Net has circumvented speed limitations by designing its casino games as Java applets that are downloaded to the user's computer and then run locally for the duration of the gaming session.

To get started placing bets from your computer, you will need to set up an account with $300 or more first. Some sites also assess a nominal monthly service charge, usually under $10. Your winnings, if any, would then be transferred by a credit to your bank card, direct wire or check.

Other sites to check out are Internet Casinos, Carib Sportsbook Inc. and REAL Casino.

Good luck!

Now, if I can just get my winnings up to an even $1,500, I'll probably cash out.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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