Online Pirates of the Caribbean

Three San Francisco men found riches in Antiqua with their Internet gambling site. Now they're federal fugitives. Caribbean

If anything, the U.S. has been consistent in its contradictions regarding gambling. On the one hand, lotteries were used by some of the original 13 colonies as fund-raising tools, and lottery proceeds financed construction of the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton campuses. On the other hand, our Puritan heritage saw gambling as akin to signing a deal with the devil -- an illness that ripped apart families and contributed to rapid moral decay. As a nation, we have encouraged state lotteries, then banned them completely, then reinstated them again. We have invented slot machines and perfected horse racing, then outlawed them, and then changed our minds again. We have pushed American Indians off their lands onto reservations, then allowed them to operate otherwise illegal gambling operations. For years, we considered Las Vegas to be a mobsters' mecca of hookers and high rollers. Today, Vegas boasts casinos the size of small cities, which eagerly market themselves as wholesome family vacation destinations.

Sports betting has its own rich tradition, from Shoeless Joe Jackson to Pete Rose, and the always-questionable arena of heavyweight boxing. But sports bets are now legal in Nevada, and thousands of gamblers flood the state during the "March Madness" of the NCAA basketball finals. Despite RFK's best intentions, people still grab the phone and illegally bet millions of dollars on sports every year.

Michael Miller
Haden Ware (right) and his brother take in the scenery of Antigua.
Courtesy of Haden Ware
Haden Ware (right) and his brother take in the scenery of Antigua.



World Sports Exchange Visa and Mastercard accepted

World Sports Exchange gambling license
Certificate authorizing the establishment and operation of business in the Antigua and Barbuda free trade and processing zone.

Internet Gambling Prohibition Act of 1999
The full text of Sen. John Kyl's anti-gambling legislation

Gamblers Anonymous
The front page of refers people with gambling problems to GA.

Related Stories

More About

As technology improves, bookies search for more breathing room. When 800-number phone banks became accessible, bookies moved operations offshore. Gamblers could then place toll-free bets without having to meet their bookie at the bar down the street, or driving to Nevada. In the mid-1990s, the Internet offered even more opportunities for customers and their offshore bookies. Small, impoverished countries with stagnant economies didn't care that the U.S. had a schizophrenic view of gambling. Betting was legal in their front yards, so they eagerly welcomed the new influx of cash. American celebrities loaned their names to cybergambling sites, from musician Kenny Rogers to comedian Rodney Dangerfield and boxer Larry Holmes.

In 1996, the National Association of Attorney Generals saw the proliferation of online gambling sites as a growing concern, and lobbied the federal government to clamp down on Internet gambling.

The feds commissioned a National Gambling Impact Study to assess the consequences of online gambling in America. But the Department of Justice faced a number of problems in its zeal to rein in this new gambling force. Chief among them was that 48 of the 50 states had already legalized some form of gambling, from lotteries to casinos and bingo games. In Nevada, you could legally place a sports bet in a casino, over the phone, on the street, in a hot-air balloon, in the kitchen of a brothel. Cracking down on Internet gaming could make the government appear hypocritical, at best, or even create the impression that the U.S. was protecting established gambling by quashing the Internet upstarts.

To this day, the Department of Justice maintains that enforcement of the Wire Act is still up to the individual states, with the feds assisting in cases of fraud or organized crime. But how is a state supposed to police the Internet? How could, for instance, the state of California be expected to monitor the actions of three of its citizens, making sports books on an island half the globe away?

Clearly, some say, the 1961 law needs to be updated. Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl tried to do that in 1997 with what was dubbed the Internet Gambling Prohibition Act. Kyl's law would have banned all online gambling everywhere in the U.S., with no exception for lotteries or any other established gambling entity. And in a departure from the 1961 act, he wanted to fine individual bettors if they were caught.

But the bill quickly sank into a mire of questions that show just how hard it is for our government to try to regulate Internet commerce.

One issue is free speech. The Internet is a unique form of communication, acting both like a one-on-one telephone call and a newspaper that services a vast audience. If the U.S. wants to enact a law prohibiting a certain use of the Internet, it had better word the legislation very carefully, or people who believe strongly in no Internet regulation are going to scream bloody murder.

If one applies the Wire Act literally, it means that a sports bet is illegal if transmitted interstate or to foreign areas, unless the transaction is legal at both ends of the transmission. But if you don't know whether the actual bettors are in Oklahoma or across the Atlantic Ocean, how do you know if both ends of the transaction are legal?

Then there are international relations. Many countries allow Internet operations to accept bets. A casino owner in a foreign country would not be violating his own country's laws if he accepted a bet from a U.S. citizen. Imagine the gall of the U.S. asking a foreign country, where gambling is legal, to help the U.S. catch its bettors here.

Kyl's bill struggled for consensus, despite amendments that decriminalized the actual bettors and exempted the operation of horse and dog tracks, state lotteries, casinos, fantasy leagues, and closed-loop Internet systems (systems that are confined to a specific geographic area, such as those found in Nevada).

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.