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"In the cold of Nebraska, when there's nothing else to do and it's storming out, I've done that many times," said Buller, who says he earns as much at PartyPoker.com as he does in his regular job, operating the 240-mile Lincoln-to-McCook, Neb., run for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.
Legal experts disagree over whether online poker players could be prosecuted under U.S. law. Stanford's Levine calls it a risk, but others contend that the laws are aimed at operators and that prosecution of players would be time-consuming and impractical. By using its software to block U.S. players, WPT Enterprises has put itself at a competitive disadvantage -- an estimated 4 out of 5 online poker players are based here. Still, Lipscomb believes that the venture will succeed, in part because the World Poker Tour's global name recognition can lure plenty of foreign players to its site. "It's a fantastic extension of our brand, and it should become the biggest revenue stream we have," said Lipscomb, a former TV documentary maker. "In essence, you're able to create a huge casino without having to build a billion-dollar property."
In the poker industry, more money is being made through online wagering than anywhere else, including broadcasting and traditional casinos, River City Group said. Like Las Vegas casinos, poker sites collect a "rake," or roughly 4% of every pot.
"Because the house makes its money from commission, making money in poker is all about volume," River City's Balestra said. "Virtual poker rooms can accommodate many more players than terrestrial poker rooms."
Legalization would clearly be a boon for WPT, a majority of which is owned by casino operator Lakes Entertainment Inc. of Minnetonka, Minn. The company has not shown a profit for the last five quarters, which Lipscomb blames in part on a dispute with the Travel Channel that has kept its new poker show, the Professional Poker Tour, off the air. The first season has been produced, Lipscomb said, but it sits "like fresh bread in the truck" as lawyers wrangle over the broadcast rights.
Tony Cabot, a Las Vegas attorney who specializes in gambling law, said that legalization might happen state by state, as it has with lotteries and with off-track wagering on horse racing, which is legal in more than a dozen states.