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Poker players protest government seizure

By Libby Lewis, CNN Radio
Shaun Poland is finding new ways to play poker online.
Shaun Poland is finding new ways to play poker online.
  • Department of Justice prevents US citizens from playing poker online.
  • Poker players say they want freedom to play.
  • There's no federal law that bans people from playing online poker.

Washington (CNN) -- Shaun Poland is 25 years old, he wears a lip ring, and he lives in southern Maine.

He keeps up with the news and he cares deeply about some things, like health care policy. His health insurance runs out ten months from now - when he turns 26.

But Shaun never gotten involved in national civic life before now.

Watch Shaun Poland's iReport

Now, he's all over the place, on YouTube, at President Obama's Townhall on Facebook, in letters and phone calls, for one reason: he wants people to get involved in their government.

Involved over online poker.

"In the United States, we always preach freedom. When it comes to something like online poker, this is something I do in my own house. I'm not forcing anyone to do it," he says.

Poland is really involved now that the Justice Department has frozen him and millions of other Americans out of three major online poker sites. The government alleges the companies and their leaders engaged in bank fraud, money laundering, and broke anti-gambling laws.

"It becomes almost offensive to me when the government wants to take that freedom away." Poland says. "I'm not asking for anything. I just want to do this [play online poker]."

If you don't play poker it may be hard to see how a game can strum up the big ideas behind America: freedom and liberty, and the right to live the way you want within the law.

But that's just what this is for Shaun Poland and for a lot of people.

Shaun has stitched together work here and there with his tech and web design background, so he's online a lot. Like - 60 to 70 hours a week.

Online poker's a break for him.

"It's an easy way to just relax maybe spend a half hour, talk to other poker players we have stuff in common with. And just have fun.'

He says when he plays, sometimes he makes money - $100 or $200 dollars in a week. Sometimes, he loses money.

For him, this isn't about money.

It's about an idea of America. Which can be hard to take seriously, when you think it's about poker.

"Just because it's not important to many people, doesn't mean it's not important to some, and not extremely important as a matter of principle," says Charles Nesson.

He's a professor at Harvard Law School where he teaches his students poker, as a strategy for law - and for life. He founded an organization that is actually called the Global Poker Strategic Thinking Society.

It's based on the view that poker is a game of skill that can teach big things: strategic thinking, and how to look at risk, and even geopolitics. These people see poker as a metaphor for the skills you need to live in a complicated world.

Nesson's been pushing for the government to legalize online poke for a long time.

And not because the government could make billions of dollars in revenues if it legalized and regulated the industry. A lot more than the three billion dollars the Justice Department wants from the three online poker companies whose domain names and assets it seized on April 15.

For Nesson, it's not about money. It's about freedom.

"It's actually the liberty of playing. That's a true way of exercising a freedom on the net. It's a form of internet liberty I happen to value considerably and think replicates too many other things," he says.

The government seized the online poker sites under a 2006 law that bans all financial institutions - banks, credit card companies, and online payment companies - from dealing with illegal Internet gambling.

But there's no federal law that bans people from playing online poker. And while the Justice Department takes the view that Internet gambling is illegal, no court has settled the question of what is illegal and what is not.

Nesson has asked his law students, as an exercise, this question.

"How would you represent me in this ? Trivial as my interest may seem, how would you do it?"

He wants them to think of ways a regular citizen, like himself or Shaun Poland, could challenge the government in court.

He knows how hard that would be to accomplish.

That doesn't bother Shaun Poland. He's enjoying his civic protest.

He's joined players who have peppered the Justice Department's Facebook page with complaints.

And he's called the U.S. Attorney's office in New York and encouraged others to do the same.

That didn't get very far. He and the others got sent to a recorded phone message at the U.S. Attorney's office. A lot of people are interested in this case. One website that posted the court documents has gotten more than a million page views.

The Justice Department declined to comment beyond its written statements about the case. It did agree to allow two of the sites to return players the money they had in their online accounts.

Meanwhile, Poland has produced a YouTube video that shows players they can go to other sites to play poker if they want to.

He shows one poker site, in real time, where 3 players from the U.S. are betting between $500 and $1,600 dollars.

Poland also set up his own website where's he's posting the responses he's getting from lawmakers.

He's no slick lobbyist, his website has typos, but he's giving it the good old American try for something he believes in.