To many of Maryland’s gamblers, it won’t matter if or when slot machines arrive.

The spell of the Internet already gives them the opportunity to bet when they want – sometimes illegally – on Web sites from the privacy of their home.


“For me it’s pretty relaxing,” said Craig, an Annapolis resident who declined to give his last name.


The 27-year-old said he plays online blackjack through once or twice a week in 90-minute sessions.


“I do other things at the same time,” he said. “It’s sort of therapeutic in a way.”


Anti-gambling activists fear that the estimated 1,800 Internet gambling Web sites target a younger generation comfortable with computers and people who don’t want to leave their homes for a trip to a casino.


“Young people would be the victims of online addiction,” said Barbara Knickelbein of Glen Burnie-based NOcasiNO-Maryland. “Many senior citizens may find it user-friendly. On rainy days you don’t have to go to Dover.”


The Rev. Byron Brought, senior pastor at Calvary United Methodist Church in Annapolis, compared Internet gambling sites to pornography Web sites – both of which are hard to regulate or monitor.


He said he’s opposed to all forms of gambling, but he suspects Internet gambling would be more addictive because gamblers can do it from home.


“There are absolutely no restraints,” the Rev. Brought said. “You can run up a humongous bill. You could bankrupt yourself very quickly.”


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Under the 1961 Wire Act, meant to ban sports betting by telephone, it’s illegal to operate a online gambling Web site in the United States, according to Kevin Enright, spokesman for the Maryland Attorney General’s Office.


But it’s not illegal to operate them in other countries. And it’s legal to provide online betting services for race- tracks such as Laurel Park and Pimlico under the U.S. Interstate Horse Racing Act.


But the question over the legality of online gambling is almost moot.


Since gambling Web sites are based off-shore, the Department of Justice is often stymied in its attempts to shut them down.


Though Maryland doesn’t have a law specifically banning online gambling, Mr. Enright said it’s covered by the same laws against wagering not specifically permitted, such as horse racing and the Maryland Lottery.


Illegal gambling is a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of one year in jail and a fine up to $1,000, or both.


Mr. Enright said there’s no way to know how many people in the state are using the sites or if there are sites being operated illegally in the state.


“Most of these Web sites are not in the state of Maryland, and in order to prosecute someone for maintaining one of these sites we would need to prove that the server was in Maryland,” he said. “(The office) is aware of the problems associated with online gambling: the potential for fraud, the potential for hackers to prey on these unregulated sites, and the potential for minors to access these sites as well.”


Online breakdown


Trinidad-based Casino alone boasts 2 billion customers worldwide, 12,500 of whom live in Maryland.


Among Maryland players, 52 percent are age 21 to 44, 59 percent of players are women, and 18 percent are older than 55.


“We’re noticing more and more women playing,” said CasinoFortune Vice President Dennis Rose. He says that’s because online gambling is less intimidating than land casinos.


Other burgeoning groups rolling the virtual dice include people with physical disabilities, who may not be able to leave the house easily, or gamblers who prefer to avoid a smoke-filled casino.


Mr. Rose said there will always be people with gambling problems, with or without the Internet.


“Online gambling is becoming a more accepted form of entertainment,” he said. “The choice lies with the player.”


He said his company would like to be welcomed in the United States, where a large bulk of its customers live. The gambling industry received a boost in November when a World Trade Organization panel ruled that the U.S. should let its citizens place bets through offshore sites. The panel said prohibitions on Internet gambling are unfair trade practices.


That infuriates anti-gambling activists like Diane Berlin, vice president of the Pennsylvania-based National Coalition Against Legalized Gambling.


“Gambling, whether it is done on the land or in cyberspace, cannot be logically equated with trade or commerce,” she said. “This is not ordinary commerce or trade … I most certainly equate it to all predatory activities. It’s not just kids who are being targeted.”


Targeting children


It’s the idea of children gambling online that worries the Federal Trade Commission.


In 2002, commission representatives tried to access 100 Web sites as minors and found that most were able to do so easily.


Under county school system policy, a filter system blocks inappropriate content, and students are prohibited from using a school network account for non-school-related activity.


County library computer filters are set up to block only pornography, and can accept credit card transactions, spokesman Laurie Hayes said. But she said a librarian would stop anyone from using the computer for doing anything illegal, including gambling.


But at home, with many teenagers owning personal credit cards and computers, fudging an age online isn’t always difficult.


Craig, who began online gambling a year after graduating from the University of Maryland, said he can see how some people could be sucked into online gambling.


But as for himself, he said he’s careful to monitor his budget of $300 to $400 a month.


He said his hobby is “not taking away from anything else.”


Still, it’s a different world online from the trips he has made to Atlantic City with his friends, he said.


“When you go to Atlantic City, you’re packing the car. You’re going to get the 5 a.m. breakfast and tip the waitress,” he said. “It’s a much different experience.”




The owner of Laurel Park has signed a deal with a California firm to restore its online betting services for Laurel Park and Pimlico starting next month.

Magna Entertainment Corp., a majority owner of both Laurel Park and Pimlico, has agreed to provide live video feeds to subscribers of Inc.’s horse racing services.


Online wagering will start at the end of January for Laurel Park, and on New Year’s Day for Pimlico.


Youbet CEO Charles F. Champion said the agreement restores a connection that existed before Magna’s investment in the Maryland tracks. Magna operates its own online betting sites, and locked out Youbet when it took control of the tracks.


The company continued to accept parimutual wages and showed races from Rosecroft Raceway.


“While we were not carrying Laurel and Pimlico, we were taking wagers from Maryland bettors,” Mr. Champion said.


Magna officials couldn’t be reached for comment.


Mr. Champion said online gambling is permitted under the U.S. Interstate Horse Racing Act and his company is licensed with the Maryland Racing Commission.


He said Magna’s agreement snares the only outstanding race in the Triple Crown for his subscribers.


“We are especially excited about adding the 2005 Preakness to our offering,” he said.


In addition to Maryland, Magna’s racetracks and horse training facilities are located in California, Florida, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.