Sheldon Adelson, widely recognized in the poker and gambling worlds as the United States’ leading opponent to online poker and online gambling, passed away late on Monday at the age of 87. Adelson, the founder and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp. died from complications to his ongoing treatment for non-Hodgkins lymphona, which he had been battling for more than two years.
Adelson had taken a leave of absence from his leadership role at LV Sands just a week prior to his passing, as his disease progressed into a terminal phase. Adelson is scheduled to buried in Israel on Friday, while ownership of his controlling ownership in LV Sands will transfer to his wife, Miriam.
Adelson was beloved by some and reviled by others, though in the poker world that balance long tipped toward revulsion many years ago. While claims that Adelson was responsible for 2011’s “Black Friday” crackdown are false, Adelson pounced on the opportunity to use that crackdown as a weapon to weaken his US casino-entertainment competition, which sought official legalization for several forms of online gambling.
Worse, in the eyes of many, was Adelson’s blatant hypocrisy on the topic, declaring that online gambling was morally bankrupt but that gambling at casinos — especially his prominent Venetian and Las Vegas properties — was just fine. And amid that hypocrisy, most poker people forgot that Adelson and the Venetian were totally okay with partnering with PokerStars for what was to be a long-running series at the Venetian. The first stop went as planned, but then Black Friday happened, and all of a sudden PokerStars and all of online gambling was the Great Satan to Uncle Shelly.
Adelson also infamously pooh-poohed the skill elements of poker, stating in a prominent interview, “That skill base is, in my opinion, just a bunch of baloney. To get a card is not skill based. I know people say it is skill based, but it’s just so they can categorize it in a certain segment.”
Not choosing to offer online gambling through LV Sands would have been a fine and responsible corporate choice, had it stopped right there. However, Adelson instead declared war on the entire concept of online gambling being legalized in the US. He funded a noxious astroturf lobbying outfit, the Coalition to Stop Internet Gambling (CSIG). CSIG, with millions of dollars of Adelson’s backing behind it, sought to tie online gambling to children, which was irresponsible and false in the extreme. While regulated online poker slowly began to establish a toehold, it offered state-of-the-art customer ID processes that all but eliminated the specter of underage gambling. Meanwhile, Adelson’s properties in Nevada and Pennsylvania regularly paid fines for failing to safeguard against minors accessing and actively gambling in casinos.
Adelson used some of his massive wealth to try to shut down those post-Black Friday online gambling and poker and legalization efforts in other ways. He directed LV Sands lawyers and lobbyists to work with certain anti-gambling legislators to create his hoped-for “Restore America’s Wire Act” (RAWA) measure, which would have clamped down on online gambling across the entire US. The draft measures were exposed as being crafted by Adelson’s lawyers, but though several iterations of the bills received Congressional consideration, none came close to passing. Worse, the attempt was so brazen that it made Adelson the media poster child for American “crony capitalism,” meaning trying to purchase legislation detrimental to most of the general public but profitable for said capitalist’s financial interests.
Adelson and his legal goons also played a key role in the related Wire Act reversal opinion that sought to undue the famed Eric Holder opinion that declared that the Wire Act applied only to sports betting, and not to other forms of gambling. When New Jersey (and later, New Hampshire) challenged the constitutionality of even the sports-betting block that had existed since 1961, Adelson and Co. again worked with allies within the DOJ to battle the states’ legalization efforts. Eventually the states won out in a Supreme Court ruling after several years of legal war.
I read a piece regarding Adelson’s passing that stated that we really shouldn’t revile Adelson’s anti-online gambling stances because those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. I find that notion to be nonsense; Adelson’s efforts singularly stalled legalization efforts for several years and can be seen to this day. The purpose of it all was to drive gambling revenue through his Venetian and Palazzo properties as long as possible, even if he really knew that it was a losing battle. By delaying the inevitable, however, Adelson continued to enrich his LV Sands bottom line while preventing his competitors, Caesars for example, from being able to quickly move into a waiting online space. Spread that blockage across many companies and states, think of the tens of thousands of jobs and business opportunities lost, and then one can begin to comprehend the damage done.
One sign of change to look for is the likelihood that Adelson’s passing will allow the American Gaming Association (AGA) to advocate for online gambling legalization. The prominent casino-lobbying organization had been neutered for years on the topic after its two largest donors, Adelson and Steve Wynn, threatened to leave the group if it tried to lobby on the topic. Wynn self-destructed a couple of years ago, but Adelson (via LV Sands, the AGA’s single largest benefactor) held the line. We’ll see how that plays out throughout 2021 and beyond.
May he rest in peace, but there’s no way around the truth: Adelson’s passing is ultimately good news for the advance of legal online poker across the US. It’s indisputable.