With the renaissance of the game of poker in the last decade or so, television has been flooded with both tournament poker and cash games.
Casinos and cardrooms from coast to coast have been filled with players trying the game for the first time or old-time grinders plying their trade against the newcomers. Even home games, free bar league poker and "poker parties" have become popular.
The final piece of this puzzle is what has drawn the ire of law enforcement officials across the United States. 2007 has been a particularly active year in terms of the long arm of the law rounding up poker players caught at the felt in informal settings.
New York, for instance, has been cracking down on the legendary "underground" cardrooms immortalized by the seminal film Rounders, to the point where few may survive. Indiana police have busted games in which their fellow officers were found to be playing.
Even the Lone Star State, the home of Texas Hold'em, has seen a rash of arrests and raids that have made it onto cable television reality shows. Dallas SWAT, seen on A&E, featured an episode where the city's SWAT team actually raided an underground game.
Probably the most noted of the poker raids, however, occurred earlier this fall when North Carolina police raided a tournament in Benson in September. Of the 71 people who were cited for illegal gambling, poker professionals Maciek Gracz (a WPT and WSOP champion) and friend Chris Bell (a noted tournament player who has over $1 million in career earnings, including the 2005 Trump Classic) were a part of the crowd.
There have been many similar incidents in states other than those mentioned above, but the North Carolina bust was one of the largest to date.
Gracz, for one, didn't mince words when asked about his thoughts on the raid.
"They could go catch sexual predators or something that has a real impact on society," he said. "If they had gotten two guys to come there, they could have asked us to leave the premises and we would have left."
Gracz has a point. Of the poker busts that I've researched over the past year, on many occasions the police spent an inordinate amount of time investigating the potential violators. In some instances, law enforcement staked out the properties and used undercover operatives for almost a year before they leapt into action.
The hundreds, perhaps thousands, of payroll hours devoted to such activities - not to mention other costs associated with continually investigating the operations - certainly rang up a heavy toll on the taxpayers who footed the bill.
What happens after these busts is also quite odd. In some cases, the charges are dropped outright, or indicted players are able to plead them down to lesser offenses. The money seized from these underground games, ranging from a few thousand dollars to almost $75,000 (in the North Carolina bust), goes to the coffers of the local constabulary and district attorney, which doesn't even begin to counter the costs that the legal side of the equation incur.
Even if charges aren't pursued, this money is rarely returned to the arrested individuals.
But let's be honest here. Almost every state in the U.S. (and I sense the situation is similar in locations around the world) has some form of gambling laws on the books. "Going after real offenders," logical as it may seem, would entail ranking individual crimes subjectively as to their urgency, not something that police officers can choose to do. They must, after all, investigate all crimes without prejudice - even though a simple gathering of poker players is most definitely not on the same order of crime as, say, the actions of a high-level drug cartel.
The common thread that seems to run through most of the poker raids is the fact that, in one form or another, the hosts of the event were taking some form of payment for providing the location to play. Charging rake or a time-played fee seems to cause these hosts to register quickly on the radar of police forces.
In the case of the Benson poker bust, it was a highly sophisticated operation with several tables, a bar and food service provided to the players. In other cases, the operations were sequestered away and entry was heavily fortified and enforced.
The best way to avoid having these situations happen, short of legalization of poker across the United States or law enforcement choosing to overlook the games, is for hosts of live games to not charge the participants for playing.
In many locales, a free-of-charge game wouldn't merit police attention, as the view would be that the players are simply involved in a game for their own entertainment. Having said that, though, there are jurisdictions across the country in which even this type of game would run afoul of local gaming laws.
We will continue to hear about raids in the future, as well as other unfortunate outcomes, such as the recent shooting in Florida during a robbery attempt at a home game venue.
While the best bet would be legislative change that would bring home or "underground" games across the United States out in the open, that is something it doesn't appear will happen.
Until we can bring home game poker into the light, ensuring it adequate security and legal standing, these games will continue to have issues with the law. Thus, hosts of home games will need to be vigilant and observe local laws to ensure that their games are safe for all involved.