By JODI WILGOREN THE NEW YORK TIMES
ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- Not 20 minutes into a Texas Hold'em poker tournament at the Granite Bowl bar and grill here, state Sen. Mike McGinn pushed his entire pile of chips into the pot.
State Sen. Dave Kleis hardly hesitated before following suit, and state Rep. Tom Hackbarth, a Republican like the other two, quickly joined the "all in" chorus.
Actually, the eight lawmakers gathered around the green felt here Saturday afternoon 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 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.
A♠ 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 busted numerous bars in recent months for sponsoring such tournaments, threatening owners and players with fines or jail time under statutes that poker's proponents see as anachronistic.
On Wednesday, even as Kleis' bill adding Texas Hold'em to the state's list of legal card games 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 with no ante 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 for T-shirts or trips -- is illegal. The attorney general is expected to issue an opinion in May.
The overall question is what, exactly, constitutes gambling, and whether poker will remain ensconced in back rooms or become as ubiquitous as bingo.
"To gamble, you have to be risking something of value. If they outlaw this, they should be outlawing dominoes and Monopoly," said Shawn Riley, president of the Amateur Poker League, which runs 500 free tournaments a week across eight states.
But while 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 Louisiana's Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control. He says any game operated as a business -- people being paid to deal, for example, or bars increasing revenue from players buying drinks -- is verboten.
Laws against poker date back at least 100 years, though most states currently 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.
Organizers of games at the center of the recent debate say their participants are playing for free. 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 free games last January to increase business on slow Mondays. The 40 seats were filled within five minutes; 30 people were turned away. Bischoff quickly spent $1,000 on tables, cards and chips.
"You'd think these people are playing for a million dollars. They're playing for a T-shirt, but they all want to win," he said.
Bar owners benefit from a ringing register, and are often 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 Bischoff's tournaments are for bragging-rights only, bars like Shenanigans in Texas City, Texas, where 83 people were arrested on misdemeanors during a raid Dec. 5, charge $20 per player and pay 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."