THE FIGHT: Runner Runner, Nothin’ Funner?

We’ve reached the desperation stage of THE FIGHT to legalize online poker.

I’m not sure how else to characterize an email from new American Gaming Association (president) Geoff Freeman to the AGA Board. In that email, Freeman suggests that the upcoming Hollywood spectacle Runner Runner would be a useful tool to persuade the general public and legislators to support online poker legislation.

“Tactics may include releasing research on the amount of illegal Internet gaming currently estimated to be taking place in the United States, driving theater-goers to the AGA website to learn more about properly regulated gaming and “discussion screenings” for targeted audiences,” wrote Freeman.

The email, which you can read in its entirety here, was first disclosed by veteran Las Vegas reporter Jon Ralston.

Affleck in Runner Runner

Ben Affleck plays an online poker operator in “Runner Runner”.

Here’s the first problem with the AGA’s approach: Runner Runner looks terrible (Ben-Affleck-as-an-online-poker-operator-who-feeds-people-to-crocodiles bad). I’m sure I’m not the only potential movie-goer with that opinion. I expect the movie will bomb as badly as the extremely short-lived drama series “TILT”, which aired for 9 episodes on ESPN in 2005 before being taken behind the shed and shot.

Incidentally, Runner Runner was written by the same writing duo – Brian Koppelman and David Levien – that scripted Rounders and TILT, if that sways you one way or the other.

Based on the trailer, I don’t think many people are going to see Runner Runner. Any “tactics”, as Freeman’s email puts it, designed to increase public awareness of the need for regulation, using the movie as the vehicle, are going to be wasted effort.

But even if we assume that Runner Runner is going to be a box office hit, why target the public? The limited slice of the public that’s in favor of online gaming legislation has already moved that needle as far to the right as it will go. The rest of the public is either rabidly anti-gaming or has more important issues to care about.

That leaves the politicians that lobbyists and pro-poker legislators have been trying to target for the last three years. While I’m familiar with the type of political theater that can wind up turning into lasting public policy, it’s usually not actual theater.

There’s also a danger in the AGA’s strategy. By using Runner Runner as a policy vehicle, the AGA risks conflating all offshore online operators with crocodile-feeding arch-villains. While there are definitely some bad apples out there (I’m looking at you, Lock Poker), the well-established operators are on par with their U.S. land-based counterparts.

Still, nothing else has worked. The California poker bills are likely to fail, again. The U.S. Senate shows few signs of legislative progress. A Pennsylvania bill is on the shelf. Most other states are holding their breath and waiting to see what happens in New Jersey, where meaningful data won’t be available until the end of 2014. Does that mean that this unorthodox strategy may draw some water from the well?

I’d give it about the same odds as going… well, you know.

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Kevin McGrady

Legislative and Politics Beat Writer: Kevin McGrady practiced corporate law in New York City for eight years before moving to Las Vegas in 2008 to join the gaming industry. Kevin is a graduate of New York University and Columbia University School of Law.
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