Not everything in life is a single-entry tournament. And when it comes to Nevada Assembly Bill 380, an attempt to inject more transparency into regulated online poker and make the games safer and more trustworthy, Sara Cholhagian Ralston is ready to re-buy.
The first legislative effort appears to have failed. The wording of the bill filed on March 22 was not exactly what Ralston — a former lobbyist turned poker pro — intended, so she attempted to make some amendments but didn’t get very far. In April, Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Brittney Miller said there were not enough votes to move AB380 forward.
The legislative session doesn’t end until June 5, but realistically, for 2023, the effort has been felted. So Ralston plans to regroup and try again.
“I was really disappointed in the bill not even having the opportunity to go up for a vote and to pass a committee,” Ralston told US Bets. “This bill came in late, unfortunately. If you have more time, you can try to pre-file a bill and get the drafted language in advance of a session starting. That didn’t happen with this piece of legislation. It happened quickly, and I did not see the language until it was made public.
“But I really believe that the conversation about transparency in poker in our state is just too important to be abandoned. And so my hope is to continue the conversations in the interim. There is some hope that this may be able to be addressed in the regulatory world, through the gaming commission and gaming control board.”
That would be the only path forward in the immediate future, because Nevada legislative sessions are only held in odd-numbered years. So a revised version of the online poker transparency bill will have to wait until at least 2025. That’s not ideal, but Ralston is willing to be patient before bringing a new stack of chips to the table.
“I don’t intend to abandon this for the next legislative session,” she said.
What is the intent of the bill?
To explain the impetus for the bill, Ralston pointed to an experience five-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner Jeremy Ausmus shared a few months ago on Twitter about a tournament he played in on WSOP.com, the lone regulated poker site available in Nevada.
1. Little late in giving an update here but a few months back I’d tweeted I was suspicious of an account that won the $7,777 wsop event. I ended up getting an email from wsop saying they were investigating the final table. The account that won (JStrizza) was permanently banned
— Jeremy Ausmus (@jeremyausmus) January 5, 2023
Ausmus wrote (all sic) in a thread that “a few months back I’d tweeted I was suspicious of an account that won the $7,777 wsop event. I ended up getting an email from wsop saying they were investigating the final table. The account that won (JStrizza) was permanently banned … Wsop states their policy is to not disclose any of the findings of their investigations so I’m not sure what they found. But to ban an account they surely found something very concrete … A deceitful top player playing other accounts or taking them over when deep and/or using RTA [Real Time Assistance] are massive threats to online poker and it’s too easy to do. Hence why I said anything in the first place.”
It may seem on the surface like the outcome was positive for poker, if an account that wasn’t playing on the up and up got banned. But Ralston saw several red flags.
“There was no transparency from the operator side as to what happened,” she noted. “And the only reason why we even know something happened and that the player eventually had his account banned was because [Ausmus] chose to share that information. It wasn’t from the operator side. And I really struggle with that. Why should the burden be on the players?”
So Ralston, working with Nevada Assembly Speaker Steve Yeager — who moonlights as a recreational poker player — put together legislation to address transparency. Her aim, particularly as artificial intelligence continues to advance and makes it hard to know who’s winning via skill edges and who’s winning via technology edges, was to create a deterrent for cheating and to make the regulators and/or operators share relevant information about banned accounts.
“In any other industry, you have some level of consumer protection,” Ralston said. “Businesses have licenses. You know who the business owner is. You can look up somebody’s business name, and you can check on their active status — whether their business license is current, if it’s ever been revoked. Same thing with contractors or any licensed professional, you’re able to look up their license number and see what their status is.
“With poker, your user name is like your license number. So even if you don’t want to take it to the level of sharing the person’s first name and last name, let’s at least share the user name and the status of that account.”
As written, however, the bill sought to force the Nevada Gaming Commission to establish a list, with full names and dates of birth, of all players banned from an online gambling site for “cheating.” Ralston didn’t intend for the word “cheating” to be in there because that can be hard to define.
Caesars, the parent company of WSOP.com, publicly opposed the measure, with company lobbyist Mike Alonso saying a public listing of these names could lead to “expensive and burdensome litigation for damaging someone’s reputation or from players who think that they lost money to an alleged cheater and want compensation.”
Poker pros weigh in
To Mike Holtz, a Nevada-based poker pro who earned the title of WSOP Online Player of the Year in 2021 and has a lead in the competition again this year, Ralston’s bill would be very good for poker in theory, but he has concerns about implementation.
“At its best, this bill is amazing,” Holtz said. “At its worst, it might be worse than what we have now, overly empowering a site that has not proven itself competent at policing itself.”
Holtz has run into issues during his time playing at WSOP.com, from getting his account suspended for several days due to a miscommunication he says he could have been cleared up in minutes, to general headaches with customer service.
“I don’t trust the regulated sites to be able to accurately ban cheaters,” Holtz said. “But I’m in favor of an anti-cheating measure. I think that the view that we as professionals should take is that anything that makes the game better for recreational players and more comfortable to play is good for the community as a whole. Recreational players, they see all these cheating scandals. If they go on YouTube and they type ‘poker,’ they’re gonna see the videos with the most views are all about cheating. So this is good in theory. I just don’t know how it would actually be executed.”
Johnnie Moreno, another Nevada poker player who’s been a pro for about 15 years, agrees there may not be a perfect solution, but believes “there has to be some room for transparency with bad actors” and thinks Ralston’s bill is a worthy effort.
“We don’t really know what measures the online companies are using to protect us,” Moreno told US Bets. “They have terms of service, but there’s a black curtain behind how they’re actually executing the terms of service. If someone were to get caught cheating or banned, sometimes they’ll never tell the public. So we just have to trust that they’re doing things behind the scenes that we can’t see, we just have to put our trust in the system, right?
“When someone plays online, they are not just an online player, they’re usually someone in the community, someone who plays live. If somebody does something in a live realm, we as a community have the responsibility to out them so that other people don’t get hurt by their nefarious activity. When they’re doing something online, it’s not usually isolated to that one online site. It’s information that would be pertinent to the rest of the community to protect us from being scammed or cheated.”
Moreno is not surprised by the opposition from Caesars, given how an operator could see any publicity given to any form of cheating on the site as bad PR. But for the good of the poker-playing community, he feels a deterrent is needed.
“It’s disconcerting that there’s no real penalty for attempting to cheat,” Moreno said. “If people are trying to cheat and they get caught, they’re just removed from the site, nobody knows about it. Based on my understanding of what the bill is, it could help alleviate some of the problems there, it could be enough to deter a large percentage of people who would attempt to cheat because now there is some sort of consequence for getting caught.”
The global perspective
Nevada is just one state with one online poker operator. There are a handful of additional regulated states — New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Michigan — with a handful of additional legal operators, so this issue extends beyond just what Nevada and WSOP.com decide to do.
And, of course, poker is regulated in many other countries. One site not presently available in the U.S. but that works internationally with the World Series of Poker, GGPoker, took the step in 2021 to require players at higher stakes to use real names online, rather than relatively anonymous screen names. GG also launched a Poker Integrity Council last year, taking a far more proactive approach toward cheating than any site regulated in the U.S. has.
Online poker has a history of anonymous play that isn’t necessarily bad. For example, starting in 2009, the question of who was behind the “Isildur1” account that was shaking up the highest-stakes games was a mystery enrapturing the entire poker community for the better.
Whether online poker should welcome anonymous play and at what stakes level, if any, anonymity should be removed, is highly debatable. But Ralston at least wants some measures in place to improve transparency and accountability. She knows it won’t be quickly and easily resolved, but she’s up for the challenge.
“There’s going to be a lot of work that needs to be done to educate legislators about poker — to communicate that this isn’t slots, that for some people, this is their livelihood,” Ralston said. “Even if we get the language perfect, there are still many political hurdles it has to face to be successful.
“For me, it’s all about lessons learned. When I play poker, I try to have the perspective that either I win, or I learn. That’s my attitude at this point with getting this legislation passed.”
Photo: Getty Images