National poker craze drawing attention of law enforcement

Charisse Jones

Copyright 2006 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

As games from NYC to California busted, some are calling for laws to be updated

NEW YORK -- A few evenings a month, Carl Skutsch used to head to the 14th Street Playstation in Manhattan.

Despite its name and the free Oreos and pretzels, there was no electronic game in sight. Instead, Skutsch, a history teacher at the School of Visual Arts here, and a motley crew of investment bankers, cab drivers and retirees gathered in the non-descript office space and played poker -- mostly Texas Hold 'Em.

Then in May, the Playstation was shut down, one of several underground poker clubs raided and closed by New York police last year. "I miss that world," says Skutsch, 42. "Every night a lot of the same faces would be around so people knew each other. ... There was a certain respect in the air."

In the past five years, poker has become a national craze. Hands are dealt on the Internet, and TV shows such as Celebrity Poker Showdown on Bravo draw huge audiences. A "royal flush" is becoming as familiar a sports phrase as a "Hail Mary."

With poker's growing popularity has come greater scrutiny by law enforcement agencies, and arrests and crackdowns are taking place from Baltimore and New York to Monterey, Calif. In October, a business group in San Jose was warned that it would break the law if it hosted a poker tournament to raise money for a library.

OK to play but not to run the game

It isn't illegal in most states to play poker at home among family and friends, but running a game and making a profit is often a crime, says I. Nelson Rose, a professor at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa, Calif., and an expert on gambling laws. "There are different sets of laws for players as opposed to the operators. Most of the time, players are not breaking the law. Most of the time the operators, if they are running it for profit ... are."

Poker has become so ubiquitous that some may not realize that they are committing a crime. In what Baltimore police said was the largest such raid in their city since 1932, 75 people were cited in November for playing in a poker game advertised in the local newspaper.

Gambling is illegal in Maryland unless the proceeds go to charity and the operator has a permit, says Patricia Deros, assistant state's attorney for Baltimore. The state's attorney ultimately did not prosecute the players, but the game's two operators and 13 dealers and employees were charged with running a gambling operation. In a separate incident in November, a Baltimore city police officer was among five people charged with participating in or running a poker game.

Among other recent arrests:

*In December, police in Fairfax County, Va., charged two men, including an off-duty police officer, with operating an illegal poker game in a home. It is legal to play poker in Virginia, but it is a crime to operate a gambling establishment, charge an entrance fee or take a cut of the pot.

*A man was charged in February in Atwater, Calif., with running an illegal poker tournament in his sports bar. Seven others were charged in September in Monterey and Seaside, Calif., with illegally running poker tournaments and sports betting pools, according to a spokesman for the California state attorney general.

*About seven illegal poker clubs were closed down last year in New York City, says chief police spokesman Paul Browne. Some of the shuttered clubs were targeted after shootings occurred or weapons were found there. "If there's an incident or incidents that involve violence, then those locations are going to come to the top of the pile in terms of enforcement," he says.

Some lawmakers and fundraisers say it's time for the laws that penalize playing or profiting from poker to catch up with the times. "Changes in the law always trail changes in society," Rose says. "The laws dealing with gambling date from an era when there was a complete prohibition."

Fundraiser for library runs afoul

Rich De La Rosa, president of the Almaden Business Association in San Jose, said donors were pledging $100 each to play in a Texas Hold 'Em tournament that was to raise money for the children's section of the Almaden library.

The group had already raised $17,000 and the October fundraiser was only two days away when an agent with the state Department of Justice called De La Rosa.

"He left me a message ... telling me what we were doing was illegal, and if we didn't cease and desist we'd be cited," De La Rosa says. "I honestly thought somebody was pulling our leg."

Under California law, "controlled games" such as poker can be played only in tribal casinos, licensed card rooms or private homes, says Nathan Barankin, spokesman for the state attorney general.

California State Assemblyman Alberto Torrico, however, has introduced legislation to allow non-profit organizations to host "casino night" fundraisers. There would be several restrictions: No cash prizes would be permitted, and 90% of the proceeds would have to go to a charitable cause.

New York state Sen. John Sabini is pushing to allow bars or restaurants to host poker tournaments offering prizes such as Yankees tickets or a trip to Las Vegas.

Because players spend money on food and drinks, businesses would earn more, and "that would trickle down to the state," Sabini says.

If gambling laws are relaxed, society should help those whose playing gets out of control, says Keith Whyte, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based National Council on Problem Gambling.

Much as Carl Skutsch loves the game, he has mixed feelings about changing the laws that currently restrict it.

"I'm not entirely sure I want to see New York plastered with gambling joints on every corner," says Skutsch, who still plays poker with friends every Friday.

"I think it works that you have this no man's zone where it's not exactly legal but if you keep it low profile you won't get bothered."

After all, that's part of the excitement. "This secret world of card players," he says, "is a little bit of a thrill." 
January 18, 2006

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