Bars Test Laws on Gambling With Moneyless Poker Games

Bars Test Laws on Gambli With Moneyless Poker Games By JODI WILGOREN NY TIMES ST. CLOUD, Minn., Feb. 19 – Not 20 minutes into a No Limit Texas Hold’em poker tournament at the Granite Bowl bar and grill here, State Senator Mike McGinn pushed his entire pile of chips into the pot. State Senator Dave Kleis hardly hesitated before following suit, and State Representative Tom Hackbarth quickly joined the “all in” chorus.

“No wonder we’ve got budget problems at the state,” cracked their colleague, State Senator Brian LeClair, who had folded his own cards long before.

“Well, it’s other people’s money,” Mr. McGinn said of the taxes that fill state coffers. “It’s kind of the same thing.”

Actually, the eight lawmakers gathered around the green felt here on Saturday afternoon, all but one Republicans, were not playing for money at all, but for T-shirts proclaiming, “Poker is Not a Crime” – and to make a point. Betting with chips that had been seized last summer in a police raid on the Granite Bowl’s free weekly poker tournaments, they came to support a bill sponsored by Mr. Kleis, who represents St. Cloud, that would explicitly legalize Texas Hold’em (but not other forms of poker) so long as prizes do not top $200.

As televised tournaments make Hold’em ever more popular and mainstream, Minnesota is one of at least half a dozen states grappling with a new phenomenon: poker games with little more than bragging rights at stake. Law enforcement agencies and liquor commissions in states with lotteries, racetracks and even casinos have arrested bar owners and players in recent months, threatening fines or jail time under statutes that proponents of poker see as anachronistic.

On Wednesday, even as Mr. Kleis’s bill adding Texas Hold’em to the state’s list of legal card games – cribbage, skat, sheephead, bridge, euchre, pinochle, gin, 500, smear and whist – is considered by a Senate committee in St. Paul, two bars in Louisiana face administrative hearings where they could lose their liquor licenses for betting that poker would bring them a full house.

In Illinois, the liquor commission has issued $500 citations to at least four bars, two of which advertised tournaments but never held them. In California, the Department of Justice has declared that even tournaments in which no money is bet require a gaming license – and there is a moratorium on new licenses.

In Texas, a lawyer for the state prosecutors’ association contends that playing for any prize – even points to be redeemed later for T-shirts or trips – is illegal, and the attorney general is expected to issue an opinion on the matter in May.

The larger question in each case is what, exactly, constitutes gambling, and whether poker will remain ensconced in backrooms or become as ubiquitous as bingo.

“We target people who want to have fun in life, not the people who want to risk millions of dollars,” said Shawn Riley, president of the Amateur Poker League, which runs 500 free tournaments a week across eight states. “To gamble you have to be risking something of value. If they outlaw this, they should be outlawing dominoes and Monopoly.”

But while Mr. Riley’s organization bans entry fees or even drink minimums, and will prohibit prizes altogether if local officials object, its 44,000 members do amass points that lead them to regional and national tournaments where they can win a seat at the World Series of Poker, which otherwise costs $10,000 to enter. That makes it illegal, said Brian DeJean, a lawyer for the Louisiana Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. He says any game operated as a business – people being paid to deal, for example, or bars increasing revenues from players buying drinks – is verboten.

“We’re not seeing friendly games where five people show up and sit around the table, what we’re seeing is games where somebody is making some situs poker pkv games money,” Mr. DeJean said. “We would not be having the same conversation if every Tuesday was prostitution night in these bars.”

Poker, which combines the luck of the draw with strategy based on mathematical probability and more than a little bluffing, dates back more than 1,000 years, to China, and spread across the United States by steamboat and wagon train in the early 19th century.

Laws against poker date back at least 100 years, though most states allow it to be played for money in private homes, as long as games are not advertised and organizers do not take a cut of the pot.

Texas Hold’em, a version of poker in which each player gets two cards face down and five common cards are dealt face up between rounds of betting, was originally called “Hold Me, Darling” when it made its debut in Las Vegas casinos in 1963. By 1970 it had become the signature event at the annual World Series.

But the games truly exploded in 2003 after cable television began broadcasting high-stakes tournaments where viewers could see players’ cards. Now billions are bet online and games are sprouting on every suburban corner.

Playing for free, a notion that offends poker purists, is an even newer trend, quickly becoming as common as folding before the flop. In Peoria, Ill., you can find a game any weeknight – two on Wednesdays – but expect to go home empty-handed.

“No buy-in, no prizes, no trip to Vegas, no trophies, no ranking systems, no free shirts, no hats, no pictures on the Internet – not even a free beer!” the Peoria Poker League warns on its Web site, wary of the Illinois liquor commission’s crackdown.

Dave Bischoff, owner of the Granite Bowl here in St. Cloud, a city of 60,000 people about 70 miles northwest of Minneapolis, started the free games last January to increase business on slow Mondays. The 40 seats were filled within five minutes; 30 people were turned away. Mr. Bischoff quickly spent $1,000 on tables, cards and chips.

“It turned a dead night into one of my busiest nights of the week,” Mr. Bischoff said, noting that people come three hours early to sign up, eating and drinking their way to the first deal. “You’d think these people are playing for a million dollars. They’re playing for a T-shirt, but they all want to win.”

Novices love the free tournaments because they can ape the pros they see on television without risking their nest eggs. Experienced players come to experiment with new strategies. Bar owners benefit from a ringing register, and are usually happy to pay dealers and tournament organizers with part of the profits.

But as quickly as the idea spread, so have efforts to shut it down. Part of the problem is that while Mr. Bischoff’s tournaments are for bragging rights only, bars like Shenanigans in Texas City, Tex., where 83 people were arrested on misdemeanors in a raid Dec. 5, have been accused of charging $20 per player and paying winners with the proceeds.

“You want to play a game for fun? Perfectly legal,” said Cliff Herberg, chief of white-collar crime at the Bexar County district attorney’s office in San Antonio. “You want to start buying chips for $50 and you’re playing for a trip to Las Vegas? That’s gambling, and it’s illegal. People say, ‘Well, we’re doing it for charity.’ Doesn’t matter. You can’t be a charitable drug dealer, and you can’t be a charitable gambler.”

Lawyers for the Illinois liquor commission wrote in a recent newsletter that “the short answer” about Hold’em is that it “is gambling.” “These are games of skill or chance,” the article says. “Any poker tournament or other card game tournament may not be held at a licensed establishment.”

The Amateur Poker League is considering legal action in Illinois and California to challenge the citations bars have received in those states, and is determined to offer its free tournaments nationwide. Here in Minnesota, Mr. Kleis’s bill, which he says simply clarifies the existing statute to codify free Hold’em games as legal, faces little opposition.

“I’m not a fan of gambling,” noted State Senator David Hann, who had never played Hold’em before Saturday but nonetheless finished second. “I think this is social.”

Each lawmaker was handed a stack of chips arbitrarily assigned $25, $100 and $500 values, for a total of $2,000. There were few folds, perhaps a sign of the fake stakes.

“We’re fiscally conservative,” State Senator Sean Nienow joked as each player checked rather than bet in round after round.

Assuming the law passes, Mr. Bischoff and some friends plan to expand their “Free Poker Tour” with games across Minnesota. No charges were filed after 20 officers, guns bared, burst into the bar last July, but the seized chips and cards were just returned last week.

With each player’s cards preserved in plastic bags, Mr. Bischoff said he plans to pick up that day’s tournament where it left off one Saturday next month. Winner gets a T-shirt.

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