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Groups that want California to make Internet poker legal are upping the ante in their efforts to convince lawmakers that online gambling is a good idea: They're launching web sites where users can play poker without betting any money on the game.

Legislation to permit in-state Internet gambling stalled this year, but proponents are expected to come back in January with a new proposal. Gambling operators will likely use their new free poker sites to make the case to lawmakers that Internet poker is popular in California and demonstrate how gambling versions of the sites could work.

"This is pretty much what online poker would look like as a real money game," said Ryan Hightower, a spokesman for the California Online Poker Association, a group of cardrooms and casino-owning tribes that sponsored Senate Bill 40 to legalize Internet poker.

"It will absolutely serve as an example of the popularity of online poker in California."

The group, which includes the San Manuel and Morongo bands of Indians, launched a free Internet poker web site today called CalShark.com. Last month, the Barona tribe launched its own free online poker game on its casino's web site.

Other tribes are also developing free poker web sites, said David Quintana, a lobbyist who represents the California Tribal Business Alliance, a group of tribes that opposed SB 40 because it excluded them from the potential windfall that legal Internet gambling could create.

"Right now just about every single tribe that's not (part of the California Online Poker Association) is at work at some level doing the same thing," Quintana said. "So there are going to be more free sites in California than you can shake a stick at."

While the free sites don't make money for brick-and-mortar casinos, they allow them to try to foster a brand in the world of online gambling.

"It's branding, creating customer loyalty, getting a database," Quintana said.

"Then when something happens to make it legal they can flip the switch from a free site to a paid site."



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