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Interview with Mark Balestra, Author of Idiot's Guide to Gambling

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If you've been thinking about gambling on the Internet but still have cold feet, pick up a copy of Mark Balestra's "The Complete Idiot's guide to online gambling" to warm your tootsies. Blackjack, bingo, sports betting, horse racing, no matter what your forte, it's covered in Balestra's comprehensive guide. His lighthearted tutorial makes it easy for idiots and geniuses alike to get started enjoying safe gambling on the Internet by learning how to avoid the most common pitfalls and find the most exciting gambling sites. Players and potential industry investors will appreciate Balestra's information about the history, legal developments, and major players in the Internet gaming industry. Mark Balestra is the Vice President of Publishing for the River City Group - the leading consulting firm for the interactive gaming industry - as well as managing editor of Interactive Gaming News. We're pleased to provide you with this interview with Mark Balestra.

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Can you tell us a bit about your background?

"To my knowledge, no one in the U.S. has been punished for placing a bet online." After two-and-a-half years of attending classes at the University of Missouri/St. Louis, I was informed by advisors that I had to major in something, so I opted for communications, more or less because I'd been a communicator ever since I was a child. A few years later they handed me a diploma and spat me into the real world, where I still reside today (in the outskirts). Out of college, I began freelance writing here and there and eventually hooked up with Rolling Good Times in October of '96--the beginning of my experience in the gaming industry.

When and how were you introduced to online gambling?

I was working as a part-time writer for RGT in '96. One of my tasks was writing reviews for gambling-related web sites. A handful of the sites were online casinos and sports books. Needless to say, the industry has progressed quite a bit since then. What inspired you to write "The Complete Idiot's Guide?" Actually, somebody called me one day and asked, "Would you like to do an Idiot's Guide on Internet gambling?" So I figured, "Why not?" I'm not sure if they picked me for my expertise in online gambling or my ability to relate to idiots. Perhaps it was a combination of the two.

Just how popular is online gambling today?

That's a tough question. The best way to answer it is through statistics, and there aren't too many solid numbers out there. The majority of online gambling sites aren't too hip on revealing how many players they have. Sebastian Sinclair, who in my opinion is the world's top analyst in this field, estimates that it's already more than a $1 billion-a-year business. And it's growing rapidly.

What are some of the most popular forms of Internet gambling now?

"If you don't care about the atmosphere and all you want to do is play, online gambling is a nice alternative." Again, it's hard to access the players, but my inclination is that sports betting is still huge. Sports betting got a head start because bookmakers already had tons of clients with phone betting accounts. The transition from phone betting to Internet betting was a breeze. The latest craze has been person-to-person betting, which is when you're betting against other punters instead of betting against the book. Casino gambling is huge too, but I think the transition from playing at real-world casinos to playing at online casinos isn't as smooth. The software is a lot more complicated (the back-end that is), and a lot of people shy away because they have no idea how online casinos work. They'd be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is if they gave it a shot. I should also mention that bingo is big too.

In your book, you admit that "the legality of online gambling is about as pellucid as a London fog." But what does the online player need to know about the legal consequences of placing a bet on the Internet? "If it looks like the site was created and published in a span of two or three hours, I would avoid it." First, I'll narrow the scope to U.S. players, as that's where the legality issue is the most publicly questioned. I think the best way to look at it is from state to state. It's been fairly well established that no federal law punishes the player. The Kyl bill originally had a casual bettor provision, but it was removed because it wasn't very realistic. Most states don't have laws that specifically address online gambling, in which case it's up to their justice systems to determine whether laws enacted before the Internet arrived make it illegal to place a bet over the Internet. To my knowledge, no one in the U.S. has been punished for placing a bet online. A handful of states do have laws that prohibit online gambling, and some of these laws prohibit the placing of wagers online.

When a player is looking for a reputable online casino or sports betting agency, where should the player begin his search on the Internet?

Well, CasinoDiscussion.com, of course. (The check's in the mail, right guys?) On a serious note, I'd stress the importance of not relying on any single site. The best thing to do is to see what web sites collectively have to say about the casino. Sites that are listed as reputable by several sources are safer bets.

Although online players can't enjoy free drinks, what are some of the advantages of gambling at an online casino as opposed to a land-based casino?

Convenience. No online casino will ever match the bricks-and-mortar gambling experience. But on the flip side, no real-world casino will ever be as easy to access as an Internet casino. Plus, you don't have to deal with smoky rooms, hotel fares, huge crowds, etc. I think both experiences have their advantages and they really can't be compared. If you don't care about the atmosphere and all you want to do is play, online gambling is a nice alternative.

Why should players beware of the faster gambling action that online casinos provide?

Two reasons, really. First, faster play means you can lose your money faster. You can blow a lot of money in no time if you're on a losing streak. You've got to keep in mind that it's real money and you've got to pay attention to your bankroll. At a real casino, you have plenty of time to stop and think realistically about what you're doing, while dealers are shuffling and other players are making their bets. Second, it's very easy to grow accustomed to the process of clicking your mouse on buttons over and over as you get used how a casino works. If you get used to moving really quickly, you can easily slip and hit the wrong button (like hitting on a 20, for example). Remember, Regis isn't there to ask you if that's your final answer.

Do all online sites offer the same odds and payout percentages as casinos in Las Vegas?

In my experience, most of them are comparable. The first thing you need to keep in mind is that anytime the odds and payouts seem too good to be true, they probably are. At times you can find sites with a favorable Video Poker pay schedule. Some sites offer multiple free odds for craps, and of course, you always want to play roulette at sites that offer the single-zero version. The GameMaster usually has the inside track on which sites have the better odds. The big questions is, "Do they actually stay true to those odds and payouts?" Here's where it's a good idea to play with sites that are government-licensed, especially those that undergo software audits. Card-counting players are thrown out of real casinos, but can they take advantage of Internet blackjack? Not as much as you'd think. Obviously, card counters would have a tremendous advantage playing online because they can write down everything that's been dealt without being detected. Online casinos tend to deal out of a shoe, but it's nearly impossible to utilize counting because online dealers shuffle between every hand. The only way you can count with any success is if you're playing a multiple player game and you can see what everyone else is dealt. But, even that's extremely limited because the penetration is still weak.

Since the Internet is a free-for-all, what is the best way for an online player to avoid getting scammed? Are there any sure signs of a scam operation?

In Chapter 5 of the book, you'll find a section titled "A checklist for avoiding trouble." Briefly, here are some of the main things to look for: Make sure the site is government-licensed; Make sure the operators of the site are reachable; Avoid sites that offer deals that sound too good to be true; See what other players are saying (or not saying) about the site; Look for sites that maintain a high profile It's difficult to identify scam operations because many of the "scams" are not scams by design. Sometimes the operators run out of money and can't afford to pay customers. Their solution is simply to disappear. As far as all-out scams go, anyone who's generally Web savvy can tell how much time, effort and money goes into the publishing of a web site. If it looks like the site was created and published in a span of two or three hours, I would avoid it. Many gambling sites claim to be licensed.

Which countries actually do license online gambling sites and which licenses can players trust?

Well, there are around 50 countries that either license or tolerate Internet gambling. In many countries, it's simply a case of the government allowing businesses to operate online gambling sites. Several countries, however, have laws that were drafted specifically for the licensing and regulating of Internet gambling. Still others take gaming laws that are already in the books and apply them toward operating Internet gaming sites. Antigua and Barbuda is the most notable country in the Caribbean with online gambling legislation and licensing. Several Australian states have regulatory systems in place as well. Australian sites are probably the most highly regulated, and I haven't yet heard of anyone getting scammed by gaming operating licensed there. There's also the Kahnawake Mohawks near Montreal. They developed a regulatory system using the Australian model and have been licensing online gambling sites for nearly a year.

If players do get scammed, how can they retaliate?

"Nine times out of 10 when a player thinks he's getting scammed, it's a misunderstanding." The first thing he should do is make sure it's definitely a scam. Nine times out of 10 when a player thinks he's getting scammed, it's a misunderstanding. Typically, it comes down to poor customer service. Sometimes payments get hung up, sometimes sites go down for days at a time. When these things happen, it's up to the site operators to stay on top of things and let customers know what's going on, but there are many in this industry who don't understand what customer service is. If you discover that you've definitely been scammed, the only thing you can do is spread the word so that others will know to avoid that site. Let publications that cover online gambling know about it; go to the newsgroups and forums and tell other players what happened. Word-of-mouth is incredibly powerful on the Web. Because of this, scam operations are having a much harder time finding victims these days. Believe it or not, most cases of fraud have to do with players trying to rip off casinos, not vice versa.

Things happen fast on the Internet and in the gaming industry. What are the major developments in online gaming since the book was published?

I'd say the biggest thing that's happened is the Australian federal government trying to stop the growth of Internet gambling. At the time to book was published, it looked like there were going to be a lot of online casinos launching in Australia. Now they're looking at a ban. On the technology side, the biggest development in 2000 has been gambling via WAP devices. Expect mobile betting to explode in popularity coming months. Will there eventually be a new edition of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Online Gambling"? No plans as of yet, but it's a possibility. The publishing company heavily targets readers in the U.S., so the legal situation in America might dictate that. If a regulatory policy is adopted, I think you'll see online gambling quickly become extremely popular, in which case a second edition may be in demand.

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