John Pappas to Exit PPA Executive Director Post

The Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based Poker Players Alliance [PPA], John Pappas, will be stepping down from his leadership role at the lobbying group at the end of February, according to an announcement made by the PPA earlier today. Pappas’s departure from the PPA ends a run of more than a decade in the post, and comes as the group considers refocusing for the future.

Pappas, a career lobbyist, joined the PPA in 2007 as the PPA sought to establish a presence close to Capitol Hill to lobby for the interests of online poker in the US. Pappas took over the role as the PPA’s head from the group’s original director, California’s Michael Bolcerek. The PPA itself was founded by a group with ties to the earlier years of Card Player Magazine.

One of those earlier Card Player figures, the “First Lady of Poker,” Linda Johnson, remains with the PPA today as the organization’s longest-serving board member. Said Johnson, regarding Pappas’s departure, “John is a tremendous leader and a true professional. Under his guidance, PPA has emerged as a policy advocacy and grassroots powerhouse in Washington D.C. and in state capitals across the country. For almost a decade, he has been the political voice and face of the poker community and regulated internet gaming advocates. He leaves the organization in a strong position to continue to ensure that consumer voices drive the internet gaming debate.”

Pappas himself offered this quote about his run as the PPA’s executive director: “There has never been greater momentum than right now for the advancement of sensible internet gaming policy in the U.S. Whether lawmakers are considering poker, casino gambling or even sports betting, a strong and organized grassroots effort will be critical to legislative success. I am proud of the work I have done with the PPA board of directors and the amazing PPA staff to bring us to this point. I will miss working for the poker community on a day-to-day basis, but I am confident that the PPA will continue its great work with Rich Muny at the helm.”

Muny, who will take over for Pappas beginning in March, is not a career lobbyist, unlike his predecessor. The former Kentucky state representative for the PPA has worked hard on poker’s behalf, first joining the PPA’s board of directors in 2007 and later becoming the group’s full-time vice president in 2011. Muny was once a mechanical engineer (hence his “The Engineer” nickname), before pursuing a full-time career in poker.

Muny offered this take on Pappas’s pending departure: “I am honored that the PPA Board of Directors and the poker community have entrusted me with this role, and I join my fellow board members in thanking John Pappas for his decade of outstanding leadership in the fight for poker.I look forward to leading the poker community in this fight, building on the terrific successes of 2017.”

Whether or not the fiscal belt-tightening that has hit the PPA in the past couple of years is the direct cause for Pappas’s exit is unspecified, though clues lean in that direction. The announcement regarding Pappas leaving the PPA also mention’s the group’s dwindling finances. According to the statement, “Over the past several months, the PPA has been adjusting to a significant reduction in financial support from the internet gaming industry and thusly has refocused its efforts on cost effective grassroots advocacy. …”

Pappas himself, as a career lobbyist, is also something of a career mercenary. He hasn’t announced his landing point, post-PPA, but it’s likely to be a reasonably well-paid gig with an established, conservative-leaning lobbying group.

It’ll be Muny that will have to keep the Pokers Players Alliance moving forward in the face of that dwindling financial support. Despite its claims to be a grassroots lobbying group, the PPA always received the lion’s share of its funding from corporate entities.

Pre-Black Friday, that was mostly Full Tilt Poker and Poker Stars, with Full Tilt’s backing in particular causing some severe image issues for the group — and for Pappas himself — centered on Full Tilt’s hapless attempts to establish legal cover for the illicit payment processing for online poker being run through the Utah bank at the heart of the Black Friday crackdown. Pappas and the PPA were likely coerced into lobbying involvement in Utah by Full Tilt’s executives, Howard Lederer and Ray Bitar above all others, but the episode did neither the PPA nor poker’s general interests any good at all. (Fortunately, the PPA went on to brighter days and better success, as demonstrated with the recent legalization of online poker and other forms of gambling in Pennsylvania. Pappas and the PPA put up a prominent pro-poker effort there, successfully defending against the fear-mongering served up by legalization opponents.)

Once the original Full Tilt collapsed, PokerStars did most of the PPA funding, both under the original Scheinberg ownership and later under Canada’s Amaya Gaming (now The Stars Group). However, PokerStars has encountered enduring legislative headwinds in its hopes to enter a reopened United States market beyond New Jersey, meaning the PPA has had decreasing value for The Stars Group. Amaya / TSG has experienced plenty of other troubles and financial turbulence in recent years, and all that might be making a continuing PPA buy too pricey for the time being.

The changing political climate for online gambling in the United States also affects the PPA in other ways. The lobbying group continues to openly consider adding legalized sports betting in the US to its narrow list of active causes. The focus in the US on both the state and federal level has shifted to sports betting; it’s likely to be that way for the next several years.

As Pappas’s resignation presser notes, courtesy of a hefty segue, “Additionally, the PPA is gauging its membership interest on the topic of sports betting and consumer advocacy. With changes to federal and state laws governing sports betting being considered this year, it is important to know if PPA’s large and organized advocacy efforts can be leveraged to assist consumers as new public policy around sports betting is established.”

The PPA has also created a sports-betting landing page and will soon be contacting its membership to gauge consumer interest. The group likely needs to increase donations from its rank-and-file membership, and lobbying on sports-betting matters may offer part of that solution.

If there’s a bottom-line takeaway, it’s that 2018 will be a year of sharp transition for the Poker Players Alliance.

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