Legislators bet on legalizing poker game

TEXAS HOLD'EM: The popular game could be added to the state's list of legal card games, so long as prizes are $200 or less.

ST. CLOUD, Minn. - Not 20 minutes into a Texas Hold'em tournament at the Granite Bowl, state Sen. Mike McGinn pushed his 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.

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

"Well, it's other people's money," 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 Saturday afternoon 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 bar and grill'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 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 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 -- 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 with no ante require a gambling license -- and there is a moratorium on new licenses.

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 per 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."

Riley's organization bans entry fees or drink minimums and will prohibit prizes altogether if local officials object. But its 44,000 members 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.

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

Poker, a game that 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 in which five common cards are dealt face up between rounds of betting, was originally called "Hold me, Darling" when it debuted in Las Vegas casinos in 1963. By 1970, it had become the signature event at the annual World Series.

But the game exploded in 2003 after cable television began broadcasting high-stakes tournaments where viewers could see players' cards. Billions are betting online and games are sprouting on every suburban corner.

Playing for free, a notion that offends poker purists, is a 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.

Dave Bischoff, owner of the Granite Bowl in St. Cloud, 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. Bischoff quickly spent $1,000 on tables, cards and chips.

"It turned a dead night into one of my busiest nights of the week," 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."

Kleis' bill, which he says simply clarifies the existing Minnesota statute to codify free Hold'em games as legal, faces virtually no opposition.

"I'm not a fan of gambling," noted state Sen. Dave Hann, who had never played Hold'em before Saturday but nonetheless finished second in the legislators' contest. "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 Sen. Sean Nienow joked as each player checked rather than bet in round after round.

Assuming the law passes, 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 in July, but the seized chips and cards were just returned last week.

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

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