WASHINGTON - Talk about a poker face.

Here was poker professional Howard Lederer attending a charity tournament Wednesday night, playing alongside members of Congress, lobbyists, and an assortment of inside-the-beltway types. Meanwhile, he has been mentioned recently in news reports in connection with a federal grand jury investigation in New York. By their very nature, grand jury inquiries are secret and nothing is known officially.

Such an association, regardless of how fuzzy, would tend to make most folks nervous, but Lederer - known as "The Professor" for his cerebral approach to card-playing - was relaxed, smiling and posing for photos with fans at the Hyatt Regency in D.C.

"I can't comment on something that I don't even know exists," Lederer said of the grand jury whispers.

Inferences have been made that the inquiry is in connection with Lederer's role with Full Tilt Poker, an online poker Web site that includes a team of celebrity poker pros, including Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, whose name also appeared in stories about the grand jury. Full Tilt is one of a few poker Web sites that accepts cash players from the United States despite a collection of federal laws that suggest (depending on your point of view) that to operate such a business is illegal in the United States. All of which brings us back to the charity poker event.

Lederer's even more famous poker-playing sister, Annie Duke, and a poker advocacy group, the Poker Players Alliance, were hosting an Ante Up for Africa tournament, one of a series of similar philanthropic efforts that has raised millions of dollars for relief in Darfur. Wednesday's haul raised more than $70,000, according to organizers, with Full Tilt kicking in a $10,000 seat to this year's World Series of Poker Main Event to the winner.

But the event was also an opportunity to get together a critical mass of folks interested in reversing the effects of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, a 2006 law that turned up the heat on Internet poker.

That would explain the presence of New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who is among Congressional members who think it's a good idea to legalize, regulate and tax online poker (a business that now operates outside U.S. borders in places such as Costa Rica) so that players would be better protected and societal issues, such as problem gambling, could be addressed.

"None of that exists under the present system right now," said Menendez, a Democrat who has introduced legislation to regulate online poker. "You have offshore entities. You don't necessarily have honesty and transparency on many of those sites. You certainly don't have any revenue coming to the United States. And you do nothing about compulsive gambling."

Menendez sits on the Senate Finance Committee, which is charged with figuring out ways to raise the money that Congress wants to spend, and tapping into online gambling is a heck of an idea as he sees it. Menendez's proposal mirrors similar legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D., Mass.) that has 66 House sponsors so far.

As is the case with many public policy issues, there's hardly unanimity, even among folks who appear to be on the same side. Republican U.S. Rep. Joe Barton from Texas is a poker fan who supports federal oversight of online poker. But as antitax guy, he doesn't view it as a potential cash cow.

"I am a proponent of allowing people over 21 that want to play poker on the Internet to at least do so," he said. However, Barton added, "I'm really an antitax person, so I'm really not an advocate of taxing," other than perhaps collecting enough money to pay for oversight.

And when you consider how Internet poker might eventually be resolved, Barton's example is instructive. There has to be something in the legalizing of Internet poker for enough people – whether it's philosophical or material - to build a large enough tent.

"It's not going to be an easy thing to do because it's an election year," said Poker Players Alliance executive director John Pappas, "but if you have the right people who want to do two things: license and regulate those games which should be legal, like poker, but also make sure [enforcement against] illegal activities that they don't want - sports betting, for instance - is strengthened," then agreement is possible.

Along with federal movement toward removing the cloud from Internet poker, a handful of states, including New Jersey, have explored proposals that address legalizing online gaming in various forms. But most of the focus is on Washington, and there are signals that the push might come from a familiar place whenever the notion of gambling comes up - Nevada.

The American Gaming Association, which represents the commercial gaming industry, once questioned whether technological safeguards existed to adequately make Internet gambling regulation feasible. Now, the AGA says it "acknowledges that a properly regulated legal framework for Internet gambling is the best way to protect consumers."

"I think [the AGA's position] is a key indicator of what's happening in Las Vegas in the minds of the key Las Vegas members of Congress," Pappas said. "I think we'll probably see a movement in the Senate to push this thing . . . along with what's happening in the House."

Perhaps then, poker professor Lederer and his colleagues can stop looking over their shoulders.

Feel at home at the Trop. Home poker game enthusiasts have an opportunity to get that Friday night get-together off the folding table in the basement and into the big time at the Tropicana in Atlantic City.

Parties of eight to 11 can reserve a table at the Tropicana and play their own private game - including poker variants that are hard to find in a casino, such as stud games, five-card draw, Omaha high-low and 2-to-7 triple draw. (Sorry, Badugi fans, not that one, though.)

Players can switch games every half hour and name the stakes. The casino takes a standard rake (10 percent of the pot up to $4) or a time charge ($5 a player every 30 minutes). Players get free drinks, accrue comp credits, and can bring take-out food from the casino's restaurants. For more information, call 800-843-8767, ext. 4546.