Longform

Cyber Stakes

South Florida is at the heart of the internet gambling boom -- and of the war to stop it

Shabber, a 31-year-old businessman, arrives at his Boca Raton bachelor digs after a long day's work. He switches on the computer in his bedroom and then does something prosecutors insist is illegal. He brings up the home page of intercasino.com, which depicts the portico of an elegant Monte Carlo-style casino. He enters his user information and waits until a female voice sounds from his speakers: "Secure communication has been established," it assures him.

The doors to the cybercasino swing open and suddenly Shabber -- a sign-on name -- is surrounded by gaming tables. Jazzy lounge music sounds. He clicks on a list of games, including roulette, baccarat, craps, poker, and slots, then chooses blackjack. His screen shows a casino table shaped like a half-moon. Shabber clicks on "bet" and $10 of chips slides across the virtual green felt of the table. An advisory flashes: "You are playing for real money." He knows. Shabber clicks on "deal." Cards slide across the table. Shabber has 18 showing. He stands. The dealer's cards flip over. He has 12, draws a king, and busts with 22.

"Awright!" Shabber shouts as $10 is added to his account, which is shown in the corner of the screen. He could almost be at Caesars Palace with a martini in hand and Tony Bennett crooning in the next room. Instead he is surrounded by his unmade bed, piles of laundry, stacks of video games on the floor, and stray golf balls in a corner. A Budweiser cup is on a bookcase and crumpled dollar bills are on the desk. "First I started betting football on the Web," Shabber explains. "I used to gamble through a bookie, but it's almost impossible to get hold of him over the phone a half-hour before an NFL game. So I started betting games on the computer, which is much easier. I always get through. Then, after I won a bet on the Super Bowl, I started playing roulette and blackjack. I'm up almost $300 the last few months. It's cool. It's very cool."

Shabber is one of many South Floridians immersed in the new and controversial phenomenon of Internet gambling. The region is a mecca of sorts for the industry. A Boca Raton company is one of the world's largest suppliers of software. A North Miami Beach lawyer is a spokesman for the industry. And, in the first-ever federal bust of Web gaming, three north Miami-Dade men were among fourteen Website operators charged March 4 by the U.S. Justice Department.

Florida authorities are some of the most prominent opponents of the Internet gambling businesses, many of which are located in Caribbean and Central American countries. Attorney General Bob Butterworth convinced media outlets last December to stop accepting Internet gambling advertising. Butterworth also induced Western Union in Florida to stop transferring money to offshore sites for betting. And U.S. Sen. Bob Graham is a principal supporter of legislation that would outlaw most forms of computer wagering.

The ease and availability of Internet gambling --- anyone with a computer can play -- distresses lawmakers. The software was developed in 1994, and the first Websites were started in 1996. That year $60 million was bet over the Web by Americans like Shabber, industry experts say. This year about $600 million will be anteed up. Much of that money has flowed out of the United States to places like Antigua, Curacao, and Costa Rica, which have legalized net gambling. Investors from around the world have opened sophisticated Websites and compete intensely for customers. Some sites simulate casinos; others, called sportsbooks, accept bets primarily on sporting events. There are currently about 155 gambling Websites in the world, according to Rolling Good Times, a magazine published on the Net and consulted by about 45,000 people per month.

On a narrow rutted street in St. John's, Antigua, stands a three-story concrete building with tinted windows and a large satellite dish on the roof. It is located a block from the weathered, 150-year-old Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which sports an old metal weather vane on its roof. Other buildings nearby are timelessly Caribbean -- brightly painted wood with corrugated aluminum roofs and louvered shutters. Calypso music rolls down the street like the seasonal rains. A woman in a long, bright-red skirt passes with a sack balanced on her head, on her way to the seaside market.

Charles Simon, age 47, who wears his graying dreadlocks wrapped in a bright bandanna and makes money drawing caricatures for tourists, looks at the modern building and says he is unsure of its inhabitants' occupations. "I've heard something about gambling places here, but I don't know anything else, mon," he says. Most Antiguans don't. But the 109-square-mile island, with a population of about 66,000, has licensed 30 Internet gambling sites. That makes it the industry's capital in the hemisphere.

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John Lantigua