A new gamble: low-stakes poker

ST. CLOUD, Minn. - Not 20 minutes into a Texas Hold'em poker tournament at the Granite Bowl bar and grill here, Minnesota 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 quickly joined the "all in" chorus.

"No wonder we've got budget problems at the state," cracked one of their colleagues, State Sen. Brian LeClair, who had folded his own cards long before.

Actually, the eight lawmakers gathered around the green felt Saturday were not playing for money 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, 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 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 that would add 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 Minnesota 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.

And 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 back rooms 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. "If they outlaw this, they should be outlawing dominoes and Monopoly."

Although 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 forbidden.

"We would not be having the same conversation if every Tuesday was prostitution night in these bars," DeJean said.

A quickly as the free games have spread, so have efforts to shut them down. Part of the problem is that while many tournaments are for bragging-rights only, bars such as Shenanigans in Texas City, Texas, where 83 people were arrested on misdemeanors during a Dec. 5 raid, 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."

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