Few execs dare to attend online gambling fair

At last year’s online gambling convention, there was a three-storey bar staffed by augmented blondes in miniskirts and orbited by casino execs toasting their future riches.

In its place this year is a booth with pamphlets on gambling addiction.

The annual Global Interactive Gaming Summit & Expo in Montreal is a whisper of its past incarnations, thanks to recent u.s. regulations banning gaming.

„People were really afraid to come, unfortunately,“ said Sue Schneider, president and CEO of River City Group, the Missouri-based organizer of the event.

High-profile arrests of casino owners passing through the u.s. sent chills throughout the industry.

Even people in Caribbean gambling havens didn’t want to chance a trip to Montreal, in case their planes had to land in an emergency on u.s. soil.

The Palais de congres was bulging with 1,864 attendees last June. Yesterday’s count was 640, according to figures from River City Group.

„A lot of people are trying to keep a low profile,“ Schneider said.

This year’s convention was one of introspection as an industry asks itself how to thrive in an uncertain era.

When the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act was passed into law, some companies operating in the U.S. lost 60 to 70 per cent of their revenues.

Publicly traded casinos like PartyGaming Plc, headed by Montrealer Mitch Garber, left the country to focus on Europe and Asia.

Some went out of business. Others consolidated to survive.

But there was a sliver of hope at the convention. Many of the presentations focused on how to get around U.S. laws by offering games of skill, like backgammon. Others proposed ways of overthrowing it.

Eric Bernstein, an attorney for the Internet gambling association, said there’s a movement to challenge the law as unconstitutional, which he claims has some teeth.

„And remember, the act was tacked on to a safe ports bill at the 11th hour,“ Bernstein said. „Who will vote against safe ports post-9/11?“ The u.s. law doesn’t specifically prohibit gambling sites or gamblers. It forbids financial companies from processing payments to those companies.

Some daring firms are getting around this by accepting pre-paid cards or cheques that are nearly impossible to trace. Bodog, one of the largest online casinos, accepts calling cards.

Members were also gladdened by a Florida congressman who introduced a bill that would exempt poker from the ban. Poker, Democratic Rep. Robert Wexler says, is a game of skill, not chance, and should be considered legal.

„It’s hard to say what the future of the industry will be,“ said Paul Lauzon, managing director of Ipsos Reid’s lottery and gaming group.

„It will take a long time for (online gambling) to be legalized in the U.S. again.

„And if it is, they’ll have to deal with protectionist lotteries. The states will want a piece of it,“ Lauzon said.

Attendees heard that by 2010 the U.S. law will be gone, a date Schneider thinks is too optimistic.

And what this spells for Montreal as a future host city is a crapshoot.

„We really don’t know if we’ll come back,“ Schneider said. „Everyone loves coming here.

„But our European convention will certainly benefit.“