State tells taverns it's time to fold 'em, not hold 'em

With a surge of popularity sparked by television coverage.

However, hosting poker games or even condoning gambling can cost bar owners hundreds of dollars in fines or even their liquor license.

In November, the Hooters at 966 E. Midland St. hosted a Texas hold 'em tournament, a four-week event played for an electric scooter donated by an area business.

After a few successful nights, drawing anywhere from 25-40 people, Hooters owner Art Dore Jr. was told by the state Liquor Control Commission to shut the event down.

"Liquor Control came in and said any form of poker could not be played in an establishment that served alcohol," Dore said.

He did not consider the tournament a form of gambling, as no one paid to enter the event or received cash in winnings. Most participants came just to play poker.

"A lot of them said it had nothing to do with the prize, they just wanted to compete and see who was the best," Dore said.

Other locations in the Bay area have canceled poker nights because of Liquor Control Commission intervention in other bars.

According to the Michigan Liquor Control Commission, bar owners cannot host Texas hold 'em events.

"Gambling activities in places with a liquor license are illegal," said Barbara Subastian, deputy director of enforcement for the LCC.

Defining gambling

The Liquor Control Commission uses three guidelines - chance, consideration and reward - to define an event as gambling, Subastian said.

The element of chance usually includes dice, number wheels, lottery drawings or, in the case of Texas hold 'em, a deck of cards.

"The random draw of cards is the element of chance," Subastian said.

In Texas hold 'em, players receive two cards each, then combine those with five face-up community cards to make the best poker hand. Players bet between the revealing of the community cards.

Poker players agree there is luck involved in the game, but say that patience and skill also play a part.

"I think there is a high level of skill involved, but when it comes right down to it, obviously there's luck," said Jerry Grzegorczyk, a 48-year-old Bay City resident.

"If that last card wasn't a spade and I didn't hit the flush, I wouldn't have won," he said of his winning hand in a recent tournament.

Consideration is what is required to play in an event. The most obvious example is an entry fee or "buy in," said Christopher T. Rupp, deputy chief for the Bay City Police Department.

But even if owners do not charge players for chips, being at a bar is enough.

"If your presence is required there, that can be construed as consideration," said Rick Perkins, director of enforcement for the LCC.

Rewards to winners are not limited to cash prizes - gift certificates or merchandise, such as hats or T-shirts, qualify as well.

Even games with no buy-ins, in which trophies are awarded for prizes, are not allowed, Subastian said.

However, the LCC is working with the Attorney General to better define rewards, Perkins said.

Dore Jr. thinks shutting down games won't stop the players.

"They're just going to force them underground, kind of like prohibition," he said.

While playing cards is a common pastime at bars, even betting on impromptu games can get both gamblers and tavern owners in trouble.

Tavern owners that allow gambling in their business face LCC penalties, while players face fines of up to $1,000 and jail time of up to one year according to Michigan Penal Code.

However, if players want to get together in private and play with worthless chips and no prize, that is fine, Rupp said.

"It all depends on how it's done," he said.

The state Liquor Control Commission allows bars to host euchre tournaments, the only card game allowed, Perkins said.

The LCC has denied past requests for nonmonetary tournaments involving casino games, such as blackjack.

Jay Grzegorczyk, a 50-year poker veteran, doesn't see playing poker as gambling, but instead a social game.

"If 10 guys want to get together and have a poker game, that's up to them," he said. "There's a lot worse things going on than that."

The Beaver Township resident plays with friends and in tournaments for "bragging rights" and fun, rather than financial gain.

"We used to have poker games all the time," he said. "At any bar or any party you'd go to, you'd have a poker game."

A far as violations, Subastian is not sure if more are occurring with hold 'em's increased popularity, but she has received more questions about the game's legality.

"We have received a lot of phone inquires and requests in writing to hold those type of events," she said.

Outside of bars

Card sharks driven away from bars but who still need a 52-card fix have a few options.

While participating in impromptu poker games is a misdemeanor, small-time games operate out of view of local law enforcement.

"The chances of a basement poker game being raided or broken up are very slim," Rupp said. "A nickel-dime poker game probably doesn't appear on many law-enforcement agencies' radar screen."

Gamblers run into problems as events get bigger and more money changes hands. The more people involved, the more likely police will notice, he said.

Gamblers looking to test their poker skills behind closed doors do not have much to worry about.

Bay County Prosecutor Joseph K. Sheeran has not received many complaints about small-time gambling in his 12 years.

"If I were a betting man, I'd say most people would not want law enforcement to spend a great deal of time waiting outside in the bushes for penny-ante poker games going on," he said.

Nonprofit organizations are running sanctioned poker tournaments, providing a legal betting opportunity.

The Michigan Lottery issues a "Millionaire's Party" license, which recently added hold 'em to the games allowed. Groups can get four permits a year.

Fireworks Festival President Doug Clark has hosted two charity poker tournaments, with more planned


"Everyone tells us we need to have more," he said of his tournament's popularity. He has heard from other nonprofit agencies, looking for advice on running similar events.

An initial "Millionaire's Party" at Westown bar, 611 E. Midland St., attracted 91 players, while the second at Monitor Township Hall, 3483 E. Midland Road, drew 156 entrants.

Clark obtained a temporary liquor license for the tournament, and Westown was allowed to sell alcohol at the first event.

"We cross all our T's and dot all our I's before we run a tournament," he said.

The Lottery commission sets stringent rules on payouts and specifics on how to run certain games, such as player limits, Clark said.

The second tournament raised $3,200 for the Fireworks Festival, and organizers will host another event April 3 at Monitor Township hall.

The Grzegorczyks, a father-and-son combo, took home two $500 prizes at the second tournament.

Jerry Grzegorczyk said he hones his poker skills on the Internet at various pay or amusement-only sites.

"I developed a lot of skill by playing on the Internet," he said. Had I not played on the Internet, I wouldn't know some of the little secrets, like patience."

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