Check or Bet: How safe can online poker really be?

SAN DIEGO - Everyone who supports legalizing Internet poker says the biggest reason behind the push is so it's safe for Californians to play.
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As poker superstar Daniel Negreanu points out, "The current environment we have is unregulated poker. It's just not something that is going to go away."

California poker professional Maria Ho believes a lot of card players would feel better seeing online poker legalized and regulated.

"People were against online poker from the side of 'Can I trust the sites I play on?' But once they're regulated, I think that would put a lot of people's minds at ease," she said.

Josh Rubinstein, chief operating officer of the Del Mar Thoroughfare Club, expressed a lot of the concerns poker players might have.

"If people feel they are being cheated online, there's nowhere for them to go, right? There's no protection board," Rubinstein said.

That's why Steve Stallings, a council member of the Rincon tribe, says the state should take action now.

"Do we want to wait until the one big rip-off happens in poker being played illegally in California? Or do we want to get ahead of that?" Stalling said.

But there's another big question. Even if poker is legalized and regulated, will the games actually be safe?

"I can tell you: myself, I wouldn't play poker online," said Stephen Cobb, a top expert at San Diego-based ESET, one of the top security companies.

"Using a computer as an intermediary in a card game is really risky," he explained, pointing out that just this past September, ESET discovered a major Trojan horse targeted at people playing on the world's biggest poker site,

"We found malicious code," Cobb said, "which takes a shot of your hand from the game and shares it to somebody who's got that information who can bet against you knowing what you've got, which, as I understand poker, is not good."

So hackers found a way to see your cards while they're playing against you.

Cobb continued, "If you want to take a cynical look at it: if you're playing poker through an interface on a computer, how do you know what's on the other end? How are you assured of a fair game?"

Cobb said the risk involves each player's own computer security, as opposed to problems with the company's poker software. But, he said, there could be problems on that side, too, even with some of the features of online poker pro-regulation forces are promoting.

For example, poker sites say they can keep underage kids from gambling. That notion was brought up by industry expert Steve "Chops" Preiss.

"One of the great controls of regulated poker online," he explained, "is that there are systems in place to ensure that you do not see under-age gambling, or kids that are 15 years old getting their parent's credit card and depositing on the sites."

Cobb scoffed at that notion, laughing and saying, "That technology I would invest in."

Cobb said it's like anything else online: a talented hacker of any age will find a way in. The includes getting in through so-called "geo locks," the software that would guarantee that only Californians can play California sites, which is important since poker is still illegal to play online in 47 states.

Cobb isn't recommending against legalizing online poker, but he thinks it's important for all players to realize the danger.

"If people are going to participate in an activity, it's best to make it legal, best to make it regulated," he agreed.

But, he continued, "That won't in itself, though, eliminate the risk."