Where to hold 'em, and where to fold 'em

Baltimore raid calls attention to differences in how law views poker


Poker legend Doyle Brunson, considered the grand old man of the Texas Hold 'em phenomenon, has often noted the paradoxical ways life has changed for him and the game he plays.

"In the old days, you used to get arrested for the very same thing that you get on TV for now," the 72-year-old Brunson said this year.

Hey, Doyle, in Baltimore, it still is the old days.

The criminal charges against 80 players, stemming from a raid on a private card club in the city Wednesday night during which police seized more than $25,000, underscored the vast differences in the ways the law views poker around the country.

In New York - where Yankees star third baseman Alex Rodriguez was spied in an underground poker club in September - players are not considered lawbreakers, but operators can be charged and the clubs can be closed.

In California, legal, large-scale, casino-style card rooms have been a fixture for decades. And in Corvallis, Ore., local authorities bowed to poker players this year, passing an ordinance allowing poker tournaments.

Corvallis Councilor Rob Gandara said that when he suggested legalizing poker in the city of about 52,000, he was asked why he wanted to get involved in what could become a heated issue.

"I said, `Why not? What are we doing here?' If we were hurting someone, we shouldn't pursue it. But that's not the case," said Gandara, a poker player.

In Oregon, state law gives municipalities the latitude to legalize poker tournaments. When Corvallis police told some bars and restaurants that they had to stop their games because the town hadn't adopted rules allowing it, the poker lobby began its push.

The ordinance Corvallis adopted about six months ago allows only tournaments. City Manager Jon Nelson said the buy-ins for each player are typically $25 to $30, and that some places offer as many as 20 tables.

A handful of bars and restaurants have applied for the social gambling permits, which cost $50 a year. So-called cash games, in which the house usually takes a small percentage of each pot called a rake, are not allowed.

New York state Sen. John Sabini, a Queens Democrat who would like to legalize some forms of poker in his state, was incredulous when he heard about the Baltimore raid.

Not only were the club's operators charged, but the players cited at the Owl's Nest in South Baltimore could receive prison sentences of up to a year or be fined $1,200.

"For playing?" Sabini said.

The politician recently began his legislative initiative.

"My intention was to help business a little," Sabini said of his bill, which would permit establishments such as bars and restaurants to offer free tournaments called freerolls. Players would win prizes such as trips or tickets to sports events, and the businesses would benefit from increased patronage, Sabini said.

"Businesses in New York ... took a real hit when the smoking ban took effect," he said. "And look, poker is on every darn TV channel, so let's just let people enjoy it."

Greg Raymer, winner of the 2004 World Series of Poker main event, is one of the players who have helped popularize the game. Although he was considered a solid player before his $5 million payday, Raymer - a patent attorney from Connecticut - was still representative of the dream of instant fortune and celebrity.

The poker World Series has been shown dozens of times on ESPN, and that exposure, along with poker's ubiquitous presence on other television networks, might desensitize the public to the notion that playing is sometimes illegal.

"I'm sure there are people who go to these illegal or questionably legal clubs and it never crosses their mind that it's illegal," Raymer said.

"In my opinion, it ought to be legal and regulated everywhere, like in Nevada or California," he said. "The government can help make sure that the customer is protected, just like with a restaurant."

Card rooms have existed in California, except for some periods of prohibition, since it became a state in 1850. The games must be essentially parimutuel events - in which players are paid from a pool of their own money - unlike games banked by the house, such as blackjack and roulette.

There are 94 card rooms statewide, which the state government regulates. Together, they generate millions of dollars in revenues annually, with local governments collecting tens of millions in taxes. And with the current interest in poker, the card rooms flourish despite the relatively new competition from Indian casinos.

California clubs range from those with a few tables to the Commerce Casino near Los Angeles with 230 tables, the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens with 135 tables and Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood with 102 tables and proximity to the horse-racing track of the same name.

The raid on the Owl's Nest in Baltimore, with its 25 to 30 tables, seemed to be a clear signal to local players that it might be best to take their action elsewhere, such as Atlantic City.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Mayor Martin O'Malley, said the city has yet to consider its stance on poker.

"Assuming the city has the authority to legalize poker, the city has not to date decided to do so," Guillory said. "This is a matter that would require careful thought and study before the city would decide to act."

Among the city's concerns, she said, would be the potential impact of compulsive gambling.

The spectrum of laws regarding poker across the country means that anyone who has aspirations to hit it big on the green felt needs to be careful about local restrictions, Raymer said. And it reflects some stubborn taboos.

"We have a long tradition of Puritanism in this country," Raymer said, "and some of our attitudes on gambling go along with that. We even had a prohibition on alcohol for a time, and other than a religious dictatorship somewhere, I can't think of any other country that has done that."


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