Cyber Gambling Proves Dicey for Bettors, Regulators Alike
Horvitz, Leslie Alan, Insight on the News
Alarmists fear that the Internet will turn into an electronic hotbed of illegal gambling, racketeering and fraud. Even skeptics agree that the technology raises problems not addressed by existing law.
As one of America's fastest-growing businesses, gambling seems to have penetrated nearly every corner of the country. State governments routinely look to legalized gambling to bolster revenues -- lotteries are ubiquitous. It seemed only a matter of time before gambling moved into cyberspace.
More than 600 sites exist on the World Wide Web in which gamblers can discover the latest spreads on sports contests or learn how to better their winnings at poker. But there's no need to return to the real world to bet on a football team or the ninth race at Belmont. The Web offers sites in which players can try their luck at high-stakes blackjack without ever leaving their computers.
With a couple of clicks of a mouse, online gamblers have the opportunity to place bets with casinos operating offshore in countries such as Ireland and Monaco, even if they live in a state such as Utah where gambling is prohibited. Given the growing popularity of a new and anarchic medium like the Internet, laws that long have regulated gambling rapidly are becoming obsolete. While state and federal regulators are alarmed, they are uncertain about what to do about it.
To get an idea of what the Web offers gambling enthusiasts--the industry prefers the word gaming--one only has to call up the Rolling Good Times home page. RGT, as it's known, is a year old and boasts 25,000 readers who regularly access the 130,000 pages of material available on its site. For the next six months, RGT is offering a blackjack school, advising card players that "virtually all blackjack games can be beaten--and quite a few are really a waste of your time since the possible rewards are outweighed by the risks involved in playing them." RGT also offers features on craps, video poker, sports betting, handicapping ("the ponies"), greyhound racing ("the puppies") and on-line gambling. There even is a site called the "Show Me Pages" devoted to "a collection of Missouri gambling activities."
Gamblers who want to bet can access sites such as Sports International, based in Antigua, West Indies, putting down money from a preestablished account. There also is a national Internet bingo game (operated by 50 American Indian tribes twice a day Monday through Saturday) that relies on a "proxy-play service": An individual ("proxy") in a bingo hall purportedly plays the card on behalf of the player. A nationwide lottery on the Internet is due early next year.
The most sophisticated gambling on the Internet takes the form of on-line casinos (usually located offshore) that use complex mathematical formulas and algorithms to determine the outcome of every "virtual" roll of the dice or spin of the wheel. Internet Gaming Technologies Inc., for example, is promoting a "telephony-based 'virtual casino' entertainment which offers a full line of Las Vegas-style casino games, on-line shopping, chat lounges, member parties and travel incentives." So far, few of these Internet casinos and sports-book operations are up and running, mainly because of technical hitches. A player who takes a hit during a game of blackjack, for example, often has to wait 10 to 20 seconds while the home computer communicates with the host computer. But no one expresses any doubt that these obstacles can be overcome.
In contrast to traditional casinos, where bettors gamble with chips for which they've paid in cash, on-line casinos still are struggling with various forms of payment. (This is a problem that affects many aspects of the Internet where goods are offered for sale.) Many users are reluctant to provide financial information over the Internet for fear of theft or fraud. To meet this challenge, several companies are developing a variety of on-line payment systems, all of which rely on the concept of "digital cash. …