SATURDAY NIGHTS ARE FRANTIC at the world’s biggest card club, the Commerce Casino just east of downtown L.A. But last weekend, this football field–size mecca of 250 tables couldn’t contain the crowd, with lines snaking out to the parking lot by 8 p.m. Hundreds of poker fanatics had been forced out of their bedrooms, out of their pajamas and into their cars because of one of the stupidest — and most hypocritical — laws yet to be passed by the Republican Congress and signed into law by You-Know-Who.

Almost completely under the media radar last week, George W. Bush pushed ahead with a prohibition on Internet gambling, including online poker, by blocking American banks and credit-card companies from making payments to offshore wagering sites. Who cares, you might ask? Well, something like 23 million Americans who, on a daily basis, play online for real money. Maybe the only other thing more people do every day is take a leak. And it’s probably twice the number of people who would vote for Dubya nowadays if, God forbid, he could run a third time. “Fucking Bush,” said a disgusted 25-year-old UCLA grad student from behind his smoke-gray Ray-Bans sitting next to me at the $200 buy-in Texas hold ’em table. “He’s the first president who I voted for. Now I’m never going to vote Republican again. Never.” A few moments later, this young man busted out on a dominated pair of jacks. Reading the hands of online opponents is one thing, but sussing out the live human being sitting across from you holding aces is, apparently, quite another. “I hate having to come to this damn place,” he said, storming toward the ATM.

What’s ticked off a lot of online card players is the devious way in which the Bushies slid the ban by the American people. With no public debate whatsoever, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist attached the bill as a rider on the much-belated SAFE Port Act, and the president signed it last Friday. The veritable Godfather of Poker, Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, publicly fumed: “I can’t believe the underhanded way this new bill restricting online poker was passed through Congress. What does Internet poker have to do with the safe-port bill? We Texans don’t like this kind of trickery.” Neither do more than 100,000 others who quickly rushed to join the newly formed prolegalization Poker Players Alliance, the PPA.

The White House defends the prohibition by arguing that almost 3 million tender-aged Americans, ranging from 14 to 22, admit to playing online poker at least once a week. I don’t find this a comforting statistic, and there’s nothing to be said in favor of a gambling addiction for teens — or adults. But I ask parents: Would you rather have your 16-year-old at home throwing away his bar mitzvah money on a pair of sevens or in Washington playing IM grab-ass with Bill Frist’s friends?

Personally, I don’t like Internet poker. Tried it once and, like Bill Clinton, I didn’t inhale. But what’s the difference between logging on to or Merrill Lynch’s Web site, other than that you’re likely to risk, and lose, a lot more at the latter site? And who in their right mind believes you can deny an indulgence that already attracts tens of millions? Did we learn nothing from Al Capone?

LOOKED AT COLDLY, you have to interpret last week’s prohibition as just one massive and rather transparent bluff. The Republicans (and a lot of Democrats) are swimming in gambling-industry cash. That’s what the entire Abramoff scandal was about. Palm Springs–area Republican state Senator Jim Battin, just to cite one egregious example, has sucked up a whopping $1.3 million in casino-related campaign contributions since coming to office in 1994. Just last week the gambling Agua Caliente tribe dished out $450,000 to the Riverside County Republican Party to defend the candidacies of two pro-casino GOP lackeys, and I haven’t heard of them refunding the loot on moral grounds. And, as I’ve pointed out before in this space, America’s casino-lobbying group is presided over by former RNC chair and Bush family intimate Frank Fahrenkopf Jr.

The Republicans are, in practice, about as opposed to gambling as they are to running budget deficits. The only glitch with Internet poker is that by already existing law, online gambling sites were all offshore operations that didn’t need to pay out campaign tributes to our elected defenders of youth. The smart money says that the White House ban was but a ruse. Shortly after the election, expect a rowback from the administration that will exempt poker from other types of prohibited online wagering. In the name of decency and defense of morality, the Congress — controlled by either party — will announce a strict regulation of newly legalized online poker. This time around, however, the gambling sites will be required to be onshore and taxed. And in return, the gambling entrepreneurs — most likely the same conglomerates that now own most casinos — will repay their congressional benefactors with a healthy campaign rake. As they say at the tables, “That’s poker.”

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