In 2009, Steve Wynn, owner and operator of Wynn Resorts Ltd, one of the largest and most successful casino operations in the world, stated he was “strongly opposed to internet gambling”. Now, two years later, it seems he’s changed his mind, not to mention a couple other Las Vegas gaming moguls. Last week, Wynn Resorts announced its official partnership with PokerStars.com, with the new website to be PokerStarsWynn.com. Meanwhile, the Fertitta brothers, owners of Station Casinos, announced they have formed a “strategic partnership” with FullTiltPoker.com.

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It’s no surprise many of Las Vegas’ most prominent gaming companies are suddenly turning to the internet. Revenues from brick and mortar casino operations have experienced a steep decline, creating financial difficulties for many casinos. These companies have been forced to layoff scores of employees, creating the highest rate of unemployment in the nation: almost 15.0 %. Tourism in Las Vegas hasn’t been the same since the 2008 financial crisis, which continues to cripple the USA economy, especially for leisure activities. Why fly out to Las Vegas when you can play a hand of poker at your laptop? It’s this realization that is driving Las Vegas’ newfound interest in online gaming.

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To be clear, these recent partnerships are purely for profit, not for show. A CBS “60 Minutes” report revealed that Steve Wynn’s personal wealth decreased from $3.9 Billion in 2008 to $1.9 Billion in 2011. Wynn definitely wants his money back, and he’s willing to take a gamble with online poker in order to reestablish his footing in the gaming world. Likewise, the Fertitta brothers see a future with online gambling, and believe partnering with one of the leading online poker operations will help their bottom line.

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Do these land-based casino giants stand a chance? That really depends on which Washington lawmaker you talk to. Barney Frank, D-Massachusetts, recently co-sponsored a new bill to create “the framework of internet gambling” in the United States. The bill, HR 1174, has been sent to committee for approval before formal debate on the House floor. Frank’s last effort to legalize online gambling fell flat with the results of the 2010 elections, when he was essentially ousted from his chairmanship of the House Banking Committee. It’s important to note, however, that his former bill, HR 2267, passed the Banking Committee with bipartisan approval. Chances are, 1174 will move forward as well; and with Las Vegas casino lobbyists no doubt knocking on the doors of Congresspeople, it’s conceivable HR 1174 could be up for debate very soon.

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Before you rush over to PokerStarsWynn.com, don’t forget that the US Justice Department still considers online gambling illegal. It wasn’t so long ago that the Feds arrested many key figures in the offshore gaming community, including Bet On Sports CEO David Carruthers and Neteller.com founding executives.

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Regardless of what partnerships Wynn, the Fertitta brothers, or any other casino giant want with poker, they’ll have to tread lightly until it is 100% legal to start offering any sort of internet gambling. There is, however, one important point in their favor: poker seems to have the most favorable chances of being legalized, in part because of strong lobbying efforts of many pro-online gambling groups, including iMEGA (Interactive Media Entertainment and Gaming Association). Public opinion also seems to favor poker over casino games and sports betting.

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We’re definitely living in interesting times. In all likelihood, legalization of online poker will set off a domino effect, with casino games and potentially some form of bookmaking falling in line. Finally, the seedy offshore operations that give online gaming a bad name might disappear, giving way to a regulated, taxed, and licensed USA gambling industry with trustworthy, well established Las Vegas brands.

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