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Wicked Game

Baltimore Liquor Board Cracks Down on Popular Poker Tournaments Held in City

"There are a lot [of hold ’em games] outside of Baltimore and a lot now inside the city. . . . Right now many of the people are doing it under the radar.” --Nathan Irby, executive secretary of the Liquor Board

By John Barry | Posted 2/23/2005

It’s been a cold winter for Texas hold ’em enthusiasts in Baltimore. After a summer in which fans of the poker game could find tournaments around every corner, over the past several months a once-flourishing poker-tournament circuit in the city has all but dried up. And the Board of Liquor License Commissioners for Baltimore City, which sent a letter in November to tournament organizers warning them that the games were illegal, is determined to ensure it stays that way.

Over the summer, Baltimore felt a little like Las Vegas in miniature, with highly publicized hold ’em tournaments popping up in popular drinking establishments throughout the city, including Bohager’s, Sliders, Mad River, Kiss Café, and Peter’s Pour House. Throughout 2004, games were held in outdoor tents and on sidewalks outside bars, many with jackpots reaching as high as $30,000. But the popularity of the game may have been its downfall. With the boom came media coverage, and on Aug. 12, a Sun article drew attention to the prevalence of the game in the city. A few months later, the Liquor Board cracked down on it.

Most gambling is illegal in Maryland, but a provision in state law permits certain kinds of gambling, including bingo, raffles, and wheels of fortune, so long as they benefit charitable or religious organizations. Charitable gaming tournaments are usually organized by vendors who supply dealers, tables, game supplies, and other supplies. Bars, restaurants, or clubs provide space for the tournaments, and customers supply the money. A permit for the gaming event is obtained by the charity, and a portion of the proceeds go to customers in the form of winnings, another portion pays for overhead costs, and another portion is donated to charity.

But according to the Baltimore Liquor Board, it is not legal for liquor licensees to conduct Texas hold ’em games, even for charitable purposes. Nathan Irby, executive secretary of the Liquor Board, says things were out of control by the time the agency issued a letter on Nov. 5 warning bar owners to cease and desist.

“This agency has recently received complaints concerning licensees having Texas Hold’em Poker tournaments,” the letter reads. “Please be advised that these tournaments are a form of gambling and are prohibited on [liquor] licensed premises when held for any purpose. . . . Although specific types of organizations may conduct gambling after obtaining a permit from the Baltimore City Police Department, there are no permits issued for a poker tournament.”

Irby says that, despite the prohibition of the game in bars, hold ’em games in the city are so lucrative that some bar owners were willing to violate the law. And Irby says that, despite the Liquor Board’s warning, there are still illegal games being held in bars and taverns around the city.

“When you look at the pots generated, many of the places considered fines a part of doing business,” he says of the usual $1,000 or so fines. “I don’t have the exact dollar amount, but it’s not prohibitive. A number of people are willing to take the chance. There are a lot [of hold ’em games] outside of Baltimore and a lot now inside the city. . . . Right now many of the people are doing it under the radar.”

For most bar owners, though, the warning letter put an end to the tournaments. Eric Tucker, general manager of Mad River Bar and Grille on South Charles Street, says he finds it ironic that bringing the game to the public’s attention and legitimizing it through charity events caused the city to crack down on it.

“I went out to apply for a permit for an event, as I always do,” he says. “Then I got this letter in the mail, from the Liquor Board, explaining that this is a game of gambling, not skill, and punishable as a criminal act.”

One of the differences between Texas hold ’em and other forms of gambling, says Peter Kimos, owner of Peter’s Pour House, which hosted weekly hold ’em games over the summer, is that players compete against one another.

“In blackjack and roulette, for instance, you’re playing against the house,” he says. “So you’re actually betting against the charity and giving money to them. But with hold ’em, you’re betting against other players.”

In Texas hold ’em, each player takes turns being the dealer. The first player deals the cards, and the next two players must make forced, or “blind,” bets to get money on the table at the start of the game. The player next to the dealer must bet half of the lowest-allowable bet (an amount determined before the start of the game), and the player after that must bet double the full amount. Players after that must either match or raise this player’s bet, and the amount in the pot can increase rapidly. In “no limit” hold ‘em, players can bet their whole stack of chips, leaving some empty-handed after just a couple of rounds.

But even then, the player isn’t necessarily out of the game—and this is where the real cash starts coming in. Most hold ’em tournaments have a “buy-in” (usually $50 to $250) to get in on the game. When a player loses his or her chips, he or she can “re-buy” his way into the game later. Since Texas hold ’em players can run through their chips so quickly, staying in the game can cost them hundreds of dollars in re-buys. With 100 to 200 players per tournament, the money raised at the end of the evening can be considerable. When tens of thousands of dollars are being raked in, Kimos says, the hosts of the tournament—who are generally not supervised by any outside organization—can easily skim off the top. Kimos maintains that Peter’s was scrupulous in monitoring its tournaments, and it raised approximately $60,000 for the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation and the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in three months’ time. He says he believes that there were a couple of extravagant tournaments going on that may have drawn the Liquor Board’s attention.

Marsha Coe, a sales representative of Fundraisers Unlimited, a Baltimore-based organization that runs charity-gaming tournaments, is disappointed by the city’s crackdown on Texas hold ’em, which she says raised money for both the state and local charities.

“They just closed up a major revenue stream,” Coe says. “I think they threw out the baby with the bath water. Rather than figure out how to regulate hold ’em, they just closed it down. And since the state benefits from gaming permits, you’d think they’d find a way to address the issue. Ten years ago, no one had ever heard of hold ’em. Now it’s a big thing—people are going to play it no matter what.”

She points out that, even though the Liquor Board put the clamp on bar tournaments, there are still large hold ’em games going on in firehouses, fraternal organizations, and private clubs outside the city, where police have been less aggressive about shutting them down. Some of the more popular poker clubs include the Orioles Nest, a fraternal organization in Arbutus, and Aces High Club, a private establishment on Belair Road. Hold ’em tournaments have recently gotten underway at the Rosedale Volunteer Fire Department, and the Owl’s Club Nest, a fraternal organization in South Baltimore city.

Baltimore City bar owners like Kimos say they feel that the state’s gaming law is being interpreted much more liberally outside the city. Kimos says Baltimore County officials don’t give “two hoots” about enforcing theprohibition of poker.

Sam Daniels, chief inspector of the city Liquor Board, says, however, that the law is clear. “The law already prohibits it,” he says, noting that he’s working on a paper that will clarify the legal issues pertaining to the game. “Look at articles 12 and 13 of the criminal code,” Daniels says. “It’s my determination that the state law covers everything, and we just need to enforce it.”

Daniels is also skeptical about the claim that hold ’em tournaments have been major income sources for local charities.

City Paper found that among the charities cited as benefactors of various hold ’em tournaments were the Baltimore Police and Firemen’s Widow Fund, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the Maryland Shock Trauma Center, the Maryland Zoo operating fund, and the Villa Maria Continuum.

But some of the charities contacted say they have seen little or no money from hold ’em tournaments held in their names.

Jon Rosa, public relations and development coordinator for the local Make-A-Wish Foundation, says his organization received money from a poker tournament held at Mad River. But he says that Make-A-Wish had not been aware of the use of its name in advance.

Ben Gross, senior manager of public relations at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, says he checked the organization’s development and membership database but has no record of receiving money from the Orioles Nest, which lists the zoo as a beneficiary of its Super Bowl Saturday tournaments.

“No one has been contacted here,” he says. “And even if we were contacted, we would not accept donations from those sources.”

Gross says the zoo actually looked into holding its own poker tournament fund raiser last summer, but “then we found out it was illegal” and canceled it. The Orioles Nest did not return calls for comment on the matter.

At the Aces High Club on Belair Road, a flier for the club’s hold ’em tournaments claims that “proceeds benefit the Villa Maria Continuum Orphanage.”

“We spoke to them about four months ago and we look forward to receiving their donations,” says Carol Sheer, director of volunteer services for Villa Maria. “But we’ve received none to date.”

Coe acknowledges that some tournament organizers may be running their games for profit, but she declines to mention any by name. “But that’s the problem,” she says. “More regulation is needed. If there’s a permit to sign, show it to us. We’ll sign it.”

But Daniels doesn’t think the games should be regulated in liquor-licensed establishments—he says they should be done away with.

“People don’t break the law unless there’s money in it,” he says. “I constructed my own cost-benefit analysis, and the financial risk for these organizations—legal expenses and consequences plus expenses—is minimal. I thought the November 5 letter would have a chilling effect, [but] it didn’t. . . . This isn’t just a case of closing down one or two places, it’s clear that there’s a problem bigger than that—that requires more work than on any one problem.”

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