The World Series of Poker Main Event — the last great American gold rush — begins Thursday. Last year, there were 7,319 entrants competing for an $8.9 million winner’s share. This year, the numbers will be down, because most players usually qualify for the Main Event on the Internet, and, as of April 15, online poker sites in the United States were effectively shut down by the Justice Department.

For its next trick, the U.S. government will throw a massive burlap over the Grand Canyon while handing down indictments to 11 red-spotted toads suspected of illegal uranium mining.

So what happened? The feds seized the Web sites of online poker’s three biggest companies — Full Tilt Poker, Poker Stars and Absolute Poker — and charged a bunch of people with bank fraud and money laundering. They were applying the draconian Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act (UIGEA) of 2006, which bars financial institutions from processing illegal online gambling transactions.

That’s all well and good, but people just want to play poker, and people will play poker — at home, in card rooms and, yes, online — in one way or another. But more on that later.

Anyway, I’m not a lawyer — on TV, I barely play a poker analyst — so I had a lawyer friend of mine look at the UIGEA for me. This lawyer, incidentally, does not want to be identified, partly because he’s embarrassed that he’s a lawyer and partly because he’s embarrassed that he’s a friend of mine.

Here is what he determined:

The UIGEA doesn’t say online poker is illegal. Actually, nowhere within the UIGEA is poker even mentioned; if Congress were so hell-bent against online poker, wouldn’t you think the word “poker” would show up in the UIGEA? Rather, the UIGEA seems to be targeting sports-betting operations.

In fact, there’s no federal law on the books criminalizing poker and there’s never been a federal court ruling that online poker is illegal.

So, frankly, if there were any justice within the Department of Justice, we’d all be sitting in front of our laptops drawing to an inside straight by the end of business today.

(At this point, I feel obligated to remind folks of the dangers of online poker. First of all, we cannot forget that, for some, gambling is an addiction; it is easier to hide that addiction within the privacy of your office or home. So I’d urge a caring, vigilant eye if you know a friend or family member who likes to go online to play.)

(Second, online poker is ripe for unspeakable deeds. Poker is pretty good at policing itself, and the online sites are fairly transparent, but when you have that much money at stake, someone’s always going to try to get an edge. The cheats need to be rooted out. Online sites already have been touched by scandal, and bigger improprieties could break the back of the industry once the industry is up-and-running again in the United States.)

Quite simply, people here in America should be allowed to play whatever game they want with their own money in their own homes. Yet, at the moment, in the land of the free, the government is stopping that freedom.

The U.S. stance here is amazingly dumb. We are a nation trillions of dollars in debt; even more than that if you include what Donald Trump owes. And, yet, rather than legalizing, regulating and taxing online poker — which would provide a civic windfall — we are spending too much taxpayer money prosecuting a handful of alleged scoundrels who tried to manipulate the system.

How many times must we go down this road?

Throughout the course of human history, public officials try to outlaw alcohol, prostitution and gambling. Yet no matter how many laws are passed, people always find a way to get liquor, a way to have sex and a way to bet. Why? Because — best I can tell — people want to drink, screw and gamble.

Me? One day I just want to be able to sit in the basin of the Grand Canyon, on an iPad with a six-pack of PBR, kicking Phil Hellmuth’s butt in no-limit Texas hold ’em.

Ask The Slouch

Q. Charlie Sheen took steroids for his role in “Major League.” Should he have to give up his salary and any awards he received for using PEDs? (Daniela Brown; Chagrin Falls, Ohio)

A. If that’s the case, you’re throwing out Robert Downey Jr.’s entire career.

Q. If any of your conjugal unions lasted more than six years, did you get credit for a “quality marriage”? (Gerry Kubiak; Greenfield, Wis.)

A. I’ll let you know when I get there.

Q. Does the NBA lockout affect any of your summer plans? (Tim Horton; Oakland, Calif.)

A. I’m canceling my trip to Spike Lee’s home to heckle him.

Q. What is a more impressive eating feat — Joey Chestnut shoveling down Coney Island hot dogs or Daniel Snyder swallowing gazillion-dollar contracts whole? (Paul Martinchich; Pittsburgh)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

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