Australian online poker players are worried the game they love could soon disappear under new rules set to be passed in the coming weeks.
The changes will mean offshore gambling sites will be forced to jump through strict new regulatory hoops in order to operate in this market. The amendments to the existing rules are expected to be voted on during parliament's next sitting.
Sydney investment banker Joseph Del Duca enjoys playing online poker in his spare time but is worried his favoured hobby will become inaccessible under the changes.
The amendment is designed to protect problem gamblers and prevent offshore companies skirting current regulations around live in-game betting.
However Del Duca fears the wording of the bill is too broad and will force the big poker sites from the market.
"The intent of the bill is admirable. It's not the intent of the bill to ban online poker ... it's just an unfortunate by product of the wording of it," he told news.com.au.
Del Duca, who once worked as a media and communications adviser to federal Coalition members of parliament, has created the Australian Online Poker Alliance (AOPA) in an effort to lobby the government to make changes to the bill in order to preserve "skill based player-to-player poker games".
Poker site 888Poker.com has already pulled out of the Australian market in anticipation of the law passing, Del Duca said.
Since January 16, Australian players have been prohibited from joining cash tables on the site. It's expected that popular services PokerStars and PartyPoker may follow suit.
The former CFO of Amaya Inc. (which owns PokerStars, the world's biggest poker site) recently signalled the company's intention to pull out of Australia if the bill passes.
"In Australia, we currently offer poker and are reviewing the applicability of proposed legislation to player-vs.-player games of skill," Daniel Sebag, who left the company on January 20, told investors during a recent earnings call, reported Poker News.
"At this time, it would appear likely that if the legislation passes, we would block players from Australia."
Del Duca fears the only sites that will stick around will be the dodgy ones.
"These large companies aren't set up offshore to try and flout Australian laws, they're large multinational companies that are publicly listed on stock exchanges ... and offer services worldwide to players from every country," he said. "These are the companies we want to be dealing with because they're publicly listed, they care about their image. These companies will pull out of the market if this law comes through as it is, and that will only leave companies that don't particularly care about their image - more of your black market operators - which the bill is trying to protect us from."
While some players will no doubt employ a virtual private network (VPN) to shield their location and continue playing, Del Duca said most players he speaks with don't have the computer knowledge to do something like that.
The bill - which will give the ACMA the power to issue warnings, infringement notices, civil penalties and injunctions against gambling sites - falls under the Communications and Arts portfolio. But it's Human Services Minister Alan Tudge who has spearheaded the overhauling of Australia's $20 billion online wagering sector.
Tudge has not responded to repeated requests for comment on the bill's intended impact on poker sites, but in the past has said the amendment is all about "taking tougher action" on predatory offshore wagering providers.
"The tougher laws will seriously disrupt illegal offshore providers from acting unscrupulously or targeting vulnerable Australians," he told The Guardian in November.
A previous review of the Interactive Gambling Act 2001, which the new bill seeks to amend, suggested the Act be changed to pave the way for the regulation of online poker sites.
As a change.org petition launched by the AOPA is quick to point out, Sally Gainsbury from the University of Sydney observed in her submission to the review in 2012 that online poker appears to have relatively low likelihood of leading to gambling problems.
The UK has previously passed legislation that allowed the government to regulate international poker sites while maintaining access for British citizens, keeping them in the international players pool. And Del Duca would like to see Australia take a similar approach.
"The government reviews (into the Interactive Gambling Act 2001) have suggested that online poker be looked at as a separate entity and that it be licensed and regulated. We're just calling on the government to do that," Del Duca said.
"Instead of just putting through this ban which is going to get rid of the freedom of thousands of Australians who like to come home from work occasionally and play a hobby on their computer."
He described the group as a bunch of local players keen to save the game.
"Offshore operators aren't allowed to provide services in Australia unless they're licensed but these poker sites can't get licensed in Australia because in relation to the Act, poker is considered a prohibited game," he said.
While poker is not singled out in the legislation, the likely interpretation of the wording in the amendment will see offshore poker sites unable to continue to operate for Australian users.