As one might expect from the circumstances, UIGEA falls into the legislative category technically known as "a mess." It bristles with vague definitions and unworkable legal mandates. Since the bill's passage, its congressional enemies, including Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), have tried to repeal, eviscerate or overwrite it, thus far without success. So it remains on the books as a wrong-headed attempt to address a regulatory issue that doesn't exist.
There's no point pretending that poker's popularity isn't vast and comprehensive. You can find poker tournaments all over the TV cable grid, both in prime time and after hours, as well as on major broadcast networks. (Personally it's my favorite sports viewing pleasure, second only to Australian Rules Football.)
It hasn't been that long since Las Vegas Strip casinos hid their poker rooms away, downstairs from the main floor and at the end of a dank corridor — the casinos couldn't figure out how to make money from a game in which they were not the bank.
The gaming industry changed its mind when poker became a hot ticket; now the poker room is typically a dressed-up space by the main casino entrance, and the bigger properties compete with one another to advertise the most lavish tournaments.
When I last wrote about UIGEA, in 2009, I observed that barring reputable financial institutions from the online gambling money stream merely would open the way for shadier maneuverings. The allegations unveiled April 15 make that case.
Indeed, if the charges are true, you have to admire the defendants' resourcefulness. The feds say that to fool banks into handling the illegal money transfers, they set up fake online merchants to accept and pass on credit card billings from and to poker players. You might be putting up your ante with Absolute Poker, but when the draft got cleared by the bank it would look like a payment to http://www.petfoodstore.biz or http://www.bedding-superstore.tv.
Most players would prefer for the federal government to regulate their games: Although the major sites mostly appear to be adequately regulated by their host jurisdictions, the half-baked federal American legal obstacles complicate efforts by U.S. players to obtain redress if they detect something wrong. And cheating can happen — customers of Absolute Poker, one of the indictment's targets, were victimized a few years ago by a player who had access to their hole cards and thus could play flawlessly.
The most striking thing about the Black Friday case is that it seems to be so much a relic of the past. Online poker won't go away any time soon, and placing artificial obstacles in its way is bad for players and worse for government, which wastes scarce resources in pointless regulatory pursuits and looks petty and priggish to boot. There's money to be made from poker, if the Congress would gear up to collect it. Didn't it learn any lessons from Prohibition?
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, read past columns at latimes.com/hiltzik, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @latimeshiltzik on Twitter.