(Corrects to delete reference to Affleck premiere appearance in
By Sue Zeidler
LOS ANGELES Aug 23 Justin Timberlake and Ben
Affleck have Las Vegas on edge.
They are the stars of a new film about the murky world of
unauthorised online poker that could cast an unwelcome spotlight
on a fledgling legal market that Sin City's biggest players are
Timberlake is set to walk the red carpet with other
celebrities at Caesars Palace next month for the
premiere of Twenty-First Century Fox Inc's "Runner,
In the movie, Affleck plays an online gambling tycoon in
Costa Rica confronted by Timberlake, a graduate student who
believes he's been swindled by the gaming site.
It is a departure from the run of films like the "Hangover"
series and "Ocean's 11" that glamorized casinos and the Las
"People very well could get the wrong idea," said John
Pappas, executive director of the Poker Players Alliance. "Not
all offshore operators are unregulated bad guys. This is a
dramatization, lets be clear about that. It shows what could be
happening in a worst-case scenario."
Industry groups like the American Gaming Association are
preparing advertising and discussion screenings around the
film's release, to draw a distinction between its portrayal of
the seedy trappings of global online poker, and a federally
regulated market they're trying to plug.
A legal, well-supervised market safeguards against fraud and
cheating, and increases revenues, its proponents argue.
Vegas' biggest players see online poker as a new market that
can offset slowing growth from table-gambling on the Strip. It
is a market expected to grow by more than $10 billion in coming
years from about $4 billion bet through unauthorized sites as of
A few states have already begun legalizing Web poker, eyeing
the tax revenues the games will bring.
Yet the 2011 U.S. Department of Justice crackdown on foreign
operators has left a sour taste in the mouths of many.
"The specifics of the film are not what we're associating
ourselves with," said Joe Versaci, chief marketing officer for
Station Casino Inc's Ultimate Gaming, the first company to take
online bets in the U.S. in the state of Nevada in April. It has
applied for a Web gaming license in New Jersey, which is
expected to launch online betting in November.
The problem for most Vegas operators is they have teamed up
with more-experienced poker-game operators overseas, which the
film portrays in a sordid light. Caesars tied up with
London-listed 888 Holdings Plc. MGM Resorts has
aligned with Bwin.Party Digital Entertainment Plc, to
name a few.
Offshore poker websites like PokerStars were the forces
behind the last online poker boom, starting around 2003. That
all changed on April 15, 2011, known in the industry as "Black
Friday," when the U.S. Department of Justice indicted the
founders of these sites on charges of bank fraud, money
laundering and illegal gambling.
The sites were closed to U.S. players, but now tax-hungry
states like Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware are passing online
gambling laws, re-opening the market.
The American Gaming Association, trade group for the world's
big casinos, has decided to spin the movie as part of its
lobbying platform for expanded online gaming regulation.
AGA President Geoff Freeman, in an email sent to its board
last week obtained by Reuters, plans to argue that the film
underscores the risk of a poorly-regulated market.
Both the AGA and Poker Players Alliance have long advocated
for a federal online gambling bill allowing for a larger, more
uniform market, but efforts in Congress have stalled. Two new
federal bills have recently been introduced in Congress as
states move ahead to pass their own laws.
Twenty-First Century Fox had no comment on the AGA letter.
"Hollywood has a way of glamorizing everything up to and
including vampires. This is a movie that highlights a part of
the Internet that has real downside unless governments act,"
said MGM spokesman Alan Feldman.
Caesars thought long and hard about the risk of being
associated with the film. The company plans to soon go live with
an online poker site in Nevada and is awaiting approval in New
"There was a lot of discussion of whether we wanted to be
part of 'Runner, Runner,' but we decided we could draw a nice
distinction between the illegal, unregulated world and the
regulated market we are advocating," said Tariq Shaukat, chief
marketing officer for Caesars.
It was also hard to turn away a chance to have Timberlake on
a red carpet, he added.
(Reporting By Susan Zeidler; editing by Andrew Hay)