The PPA’s California Problem

The Poker Players Alliance recently released a consumer study of poker players in California, which continues to consider the formal authorization of the game.  As the most populous of the 50 United States, what happens in California on consumer matters often shapes the consensus in other parts of the country, and the movement to regulate i-poker within the US has stagnated since the first three states to regulate it – Nevada, Delaware and New Jersey – came online over a year ago.

The big news regarding possible California i-poker legislation is the heated battle that continues to take place over the eligibility of UK giant PokerStars to join the market, should it be authorized, the company’s recent sale notwithstanding.  And amid that battle sits the PPA… sort of.

On one side is a consortium of a dozen or so powerful California tribes, demanding all sorts of gaming exclusivity in the state.  Among those to be excluded is the aforementioned Stars, which the tribes continue to hope to block via “bad actor” language in the bills currently before the state’s legislature. On the other is the PokerStars brand and market recognitions and several would-be California online poker rooms that would like to partner with the world’s market leader – the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and three major Los Angeles poker rooms – the Commerce Casino, Bicycle, and Hawaiian Gardens.

Squarely on PokerStars’ side sits the PPA, yet with a strange dilemma: The more it publicly sides with PokerStars (or now, Amaya Gaming), the easier it is for Stars’ opponents to dismiss the PPA and its motives.  After all, PokerStars has been a major PPA benefactor – perhaps the major benefactor — for several years, virtually from the time the PPA itself relocated to Washington D.C. and officially began lobbying, several years back.

There have been numerous occasions when the PPA has strayed from its stated role as a consumer-oriented grassroots lobbying group, but strangely enough, the California situation isn’t one of them.  That’s the gist of this latest study, the results of a brief e-mail survey that show overwhelming support for Stars among California players.

The brief study’s numbers are off the charts in a pro-Stars way, and that’s why the opponents of all things Stars-related are unlikely to waver in their collected opposition.  Consumer favorability toward the PokerStars brand checks in at 82% positive, as does the general impression of Stars having “integrity” in its former relationships with players.  And when it comes to the question of whether PokerStars should be allowed to participate in the market, the numbers are off the charts – 95% positive.

However, it’s in the study’s framework that the PPA’s soft-peddling of the situation is on display, as the lobbying group tries to get the information out without being accused of blatant shilling.  The results, which the PPA has published here, give no information as to the study’s methodology.  Who funded it?  Well, ‘twas PokerStars, probably, even if the PPA volunteered.  But it’s not stated.

Similarly, the PPA’s results posting claims that it “surveyed its leading activists in California,” but exactly how “leading activists” is defined is anyone’s guess.  Active PPA members to be sure, but whether they are recent donors, old Stars players or whatever is all left undeclared.  After all, it was Stars that helped the PPA reach its oft-stated goal of becoming a million-member group by once running a series of freerolls promoting the PPA; hundreds of thousands of non-paying members were enrolled into the PPA in such a manner, and there’s no indication here of whether that PPA segment was included or excluded from the study’s participants.

The vagueness extends to the half-dozen simple questions themselves, which the PPA e-mailed out to its pre-chosen California group last November.  The questions were also often leading and pro-Stars, subtly steering respondents toward the answer the PPA and Stars itself desired.

One example: “Do you agree PokerStars demonstrates integrity to its customers?”  Such a baldly biased question wouldn’t be found anywhere near an impartial survey, but in a lobbying effort, it’s roughly par for the course.  Asking that question of an audience already likely to have a pro-Stars bend is guaranteed to produce a positive result, and sure enough, the agreeable responses checked in at 82%.

Easy game. 

No one’s really going to be fooled by the study’s lack of objectivity, and that’s why the study itself, with its utter lack of framework or controls, is just a neatly packaged example of the warm-and-fuzzies.  The PPA really can’t push the study too hard, nor too seriously. 

Given that, it becomes tougher to insert the study into the California legislative argument, which is unfortunately what the real goal of a group such as the PPA was supposed to be able to accomplish, in exchange for all those years of PokerStars lobbying money.  It’s an example of being compromised by your own previous history.

There’s still some good news coming out of it.  Though the numbers themselves can’t be taken at face value and the study’s methodology is non-existent, the fact that consumers really do like PokerStars hasn’t changed.  Thus is the lasting power of the PokerStars brand, now more than three years after the last time the Isle of Man giant served American players. 

As for this PPA survey, however, it won’t do anything but further militarize the tribal consortium pitted against Stars, Morongo and the LA rooms; those tribes have been acting out of fear of Stars’ brand-recognition factor all along, whether they’ll admit it or not.  The California situation appears to be stalemated, with the state looking less and less likely to get anything done in this legislative session.  The sale of PokerStars to Amaya similarly changes nothing, with opponents of PokerStars’ potential market impact now switching the argument from the company itself to “tainted assets.”

Amid all that the PPA has yet to find a strong voice, and it’s an open question as to whether this study helps or hurts in that regard.

Haley Hintze

Veteran poker writer and editor Haley Hintze offers a uniquely independent and entertaining look at many of the most newsworthy topics in poker.  Noted for her lengthy series that helped expose the cheaters behind the Absolute Poker and UltimateBet scandals, she remains a champion of consumer interests and fair play.

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