The only thing missing was the online gambling | The World Series of Poker's uncomfortable relationship with online gambling

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The only thing missing was the online gambling site's flamboyant founder, 45-year-old Canadian Calvin Ayre, who was nowhere to be found.

"He'd have girls all around him, and he'd be the life of the party," said Ronn Torossian, a publicist and acquaintance familiar with Ayre's celebrating ways.

The billionaire who appeared on Forbes magazine's March cover decided to make himself scarce after federal authorities last month arrested David Carruthers, the head of rival Web gambling operator BetOnSports.

A federal judge ordered Costa Rica-based BetOnSports to stop accepting bets placed from the United States, and prosecutors are seeking the forfeiture of $4.5 billion, plus several cars, recreational vehicles and computers from Carruthers and 10 other people associated with the gambling operation. Around the same time, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban most Internet gambling. Although the bill's future in the Senate is uncertain, the issue loomed over the World Series of Poker hosted by hotel-casino Rio in Las Vegas: Is online poker legal? Tournament organizers and the Justice Department say no. The players, thousands of whom qualified in cash-paying Internet tournaments, say yes.

"I've got no certainty whatsoever," said Ayre, speaking by phone from Canada, days after Carruthers' arrest. "I don't believe any senior executive of any online gaming company is going to be going into the United States for the foreseeable future," Ayre said.

The World Series of Poker's uncomfortable relationship with online gambling emerged in 2003, when an accountant named Chris Moneymaker qualified through a $40 online tournament and went on to win the $2.5-million main event, becoming the poster child for the wild popularity of online poker.

Advertising by poker sites on mainstream TV exploded -- and then the Justice Department intervened.

In a June 11, 2003, letter, Deputy Assistant Atty. Gen. John Malcolm warned the National Assn. of Broadcasters that the department considered Internet gambling illegal. "Any person or entity who aids or abets" online betting "is punishable as a principal violator," he wrote.






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