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Player's Advantage: Chances still good for online gambling in Pennsylvania

| Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Pennsylvania gamblers are most likely next in line to play legalized online blackjack, poker, slots and other casino games.

A bill that adds online gambling and enhancements for land-based casinos is due for legislative action this spring after getting sidetracked during state budget negotiations.

State Rep. John Payne, chairman of the House Gaming Oversight Committee, predicts that at least some of the measures in the gaming bill will be approved by July.

“Look, we need revenue,” says Payne, R-Dauphin County, the bill's prime sponsor. “They're not going to find votes for (higher) taxes in an election year. So I would think gaming will be a component.”�

John Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance, which lobbies for regulated online poker nationwide, agrees that Pennsylvania tops the list of states where online gaming could be enacted.

Chris Capra, U.S. marketing director for 888poker and 888casino, one of the world's largest online-casino providers, calls Pennsylvania “massively important” in the expansion of Internet gambling in the United States.

“If Pennsylvania comes online, that's a huge market, much bigger than Jersey. It doubles the player pool, which is awesome,” Capra says. Currently, only New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada allow online gaming.

Capra, whose firm provides online-gaming platforms in those three states as well as in several countries overseas, tells Player's Advantage that gaming regulators from Pennsylvania and New Jersey already are sharing information.

“There's a really strong case of opening this up with a shared player pool, which is tremendously good for poker and even better for casinos, because you can share jackpots, and the (slot machine) progressives move up,” he says.

Increased casino competitions in neighboring jurisdiction and the popularity of daily fantasy sports betting might help fuel the push for online gaming.

MGM Resorts' National Harbor casino is scheduled to open this year near Washington, D.C. This month, New Jersey lawmakers agreed to ask voters in November whether two new casinos costing at least $1 billion each should be allowed in northern New Jersey, the first casinos in the state outside Atlantic City. Added to existing competition from Ohio, New York and Maryland casinos, those projects could have substantial impact on Pennsylvania, Payne says.

“I look at the gaming institution as big business, and Pennsylvania's the majority shareholder,” he says. “We get 54 percent of the take on slot machines. The more money they make, the more money we make. It's in our interest as a commonwealth to make sure those casinos do well.”

In December, New Jersey casinos made more than $14 million from online gaming, their best month in the two years Internet gaming has been legal there. Although online revenue has never lived up to overly optimistic projections, Atlantic City casinos made $149 million from Internet gambling in 2015, up by 21.2 percent from 2014's total of $123 million.

Pappas says the boom in daily fantasy sports has opened eyes in many states to the possibility of legalizing online casino gaming. In daily fantasy sports, bettors choose players for a team and compete with other “owners” based on player performance in specified statistical categories, such as passing or rushing yards, sacks and turnovers in football.

“Lawmakers reason that if regulating daily fantasy sports is a good idea, maybe we should be looking at other forms of online gaming, as well,” Pappas says. This month, for example, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission said lawmakers studying fantasy sports should write regulations applicable to all online gambling technologies.

Pappas says bills to regulate daily fantasy sports have been introduced in 15 states, and “you'll see a lot of opportunity to piggyback, if you will, on the debate in those states.”

As usual when talking about casinos, the topic comes back to money.

“The tax revenue for I-gaming is a lot more lucrative than daily fantasy sports,” he adds.

In addition to online versions of all types of casino games, Payne's bill would allow skill-based slot machines and hybrid machines, in which skill and luck factor in the outcome and participation in multistate progressive slot-machine jackpots, in both online and land-based casinos.

The bill also would require the Gaming Control Board to prepare a report on allowing daily fantasy sports.

Mark Gruetze is the Tribune-Review's gambling columnist. Reach him at players@tribweb.com.

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