Top gaming industry executives launched a lobbying push Tuesday to persuade Congress to legalize Internet poker, arguing that is the only realistic response to the boom in online play that has defied crackdown efforts.

“Millions of Americans bet billions of dollars a year at foreign websites, and they will continue to do so even if their government tells them it is illegal,” said Frank Fahrenkopf, chief executive of the American Gaming Association.

Indictments of online poker operators announced April 15 caused a drop in the volume, but only temporarily, Fahrenkopf predicted in a meeting with reporters. When Congress in 2006 enacted tough financial restrictions on Internet gambling, online play also dropped, he said. “However, within a short time the vacuum was filled and the volume of U.S. play went back to prior levels.”

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Now, even with the well-publicized indictments, “we know that more than 1,000 real money websites operated by nearly 300 offshore operators are still today targeting the U.S. market,” Fahrenkopf said. “There is no question the volume of betting will increase again.”

If that’s the case, the United States should allow for regulation that would let domestic gaming companies run online poker games aimed at U.S. customers, industry officials argue.

Fahrenkopf, along with Keith Smith, president of Boyd Gaming; Gordon Kanofsky, CEO of Ameristar Casinos; and Virginia McDowell, president of Isle of Capri Casinos, said at a news conference that regulation at the federal level would provide certainty to the industry and stronger safeguards.

Visitor numbers still increasing

The recovery of the Las Vegas visitor industry continued in March.

According to monthly benchmarks released by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, the 3.4 million people who came to town in March marked a 5.6 percent gain compared to one year ago. This continued a string of gains over the past 13 months, although the numbers are still running below the banner year of 2007.

“Overall, the economy has been improving, although it has been slow and gradual,” said Kevin Bagger, the authority’s senior vice director of marketing.

In particular, anecdotal evidence has shown that while people are traveling in greater numbers, their average spending has not gone up as much. Bagger said the authority does not keep spending numbers.

Boosted by a resurgent convention business, the average hotel room rate shot up 19.2 percent to $111.13 a night and occupancy rose 4.8 percentage points, to 87.2 percent.

Because many conventioneers are visiting with expense accounts, they worry less about price than do tourists. Convention attendance rose 10.3 percent in March, on 3.6 percent fewer events.

American Casino losses increase

American Casino & Entertainment Properties LLC, owner of the Stratosphere, on Thursday posted a bigger first-quarter loss than a year earlier and a moderate decline in revenues.

The Las Vegas-based gaming company attributed the loss to the Stratosphere spending more on advertising, and a struggling economy that saw fewer people visit the casino.

“The local market continues to be tough. I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ned Martin, American Casino’s chief financial officer and treasurer, said during a conference call with analysts.

Facebook poker firm reaches 1.2M.

DoubleDown Interactive LLC, maker of DoubleDown Casino games, operates what is arguably the most popular online casino that many people in the gambling capital of Las Vegas — even if they’re on Facebook — have never heard of.

Meanwhile, the Seattle startup just surpassed 1.2 million monthly users on Facebook. It’s all legal, and more important, it’s profitable.

“We set out to build the most realistic virtual casino possible,” said Greg Enell, co-founder and chief executive officer at DoubleDown Interactive.

But online gambling is illegal, and without taking real wagers from customers, the company initially didn’t see a path to profitability.

Then with the popularity of free-play poker games on Facebook, Enell, along with his co-founder Cooper DuBois, quickly realized that “virtual currency” was the way to remove the illegal gambling aspect while retaining an opportunity to monetize their business.

He said the key to that growth was developing games with high retention rates. Enell said DoubleDown Interactive has also benefited from 1.1 million people who have “liked” the company’s casino on Facebook.

Each day, players receive a minimum of 20,000 chips.

“If you need more, we will sell them for between $3 and $100,” he said. “For $3, a player will receive 15,000 chips or for $99 they’ll get a million chips.”

Players can win more chips, they can even check their balance. But they can never cash out.

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