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Mobtown Beat

Game Sharks

A Raid on a Local Poker Tournament is Latest In City’s Attempt to Stamp Out Illegal Gambling Events

Uli Loskot
BUSTED: An undercover officer counts money confiscated during a raid of a Texas Hold 'Em game at Jimmy's Famous Seafood Restaurant while tournament organizer John Minadakis (right) observes.

By John Barry | Posted 3/9/2005

If Sam Daniels, the chief inspector at the Baltimore City Board of Liquor License Commissioners, ever wants to sneak into a bar unnoticed, he’ll have a hard time doing it. Cigar-chomping and barrel-voiced, with gray dreadlocks hanging halfway down his back, he’s been monitoring Baltimore bars for decades now, and he readily admits that “after 35 years in Baltimore they all know who you are.”

On the evening of Feb. 25, Daniels is preparing to crack down on an illegal Texas hold ’em tournament at Jimmy’s Famous Seafood Restaurant on Holabird Avenue near Dundalk. For the moment, he’s keeping the name of the place close to his chest. Daniels designates a meet-up point for officers from the Baltimore Police Department’s Southeast District, who will assist in the raid—Joe’s Tavern on Dundalk Avenue, not far from Jimmy’s. He hands out photocopies of a five-step “Gambling Site Worksheet” for his accompanying inspectors. It includes six guidelines for determining whether licensed establishments violate laws against gambling.

The worksheet is not a legal document, but it states Daniels’ case clearly: With or without a permit, poker, blackjack, craps, and roulette are illegal in the state of Maryland.

In the cold parking lot outside Joe’s, Daniels waits for the plainclothes officers to scout out the tournament at Jimmy’s. When the undercover agents return, they confirm that the tournament is already underway.

“These guys are clueless,” one undercover officer says. “They don’t even try to hide it.” Handbills advertising the game had been passed out and left in restaurants and stores throughout the neighborhood: hold ’em poker tournament, $200 buy-in, $200 re-buy.

When they enter the first floor bar of Jimmy’s Seafood about 15 minutes later, patrons look a little dumbfounded at the sight of five police officers and three Liquor Board inspectors filing between the barstools toward the kitchen. Inside the kitchen, several cooks look up from their vats of steaming seafood. They direct the officers to the second floor, where the game is taking place.

Jimmy’s doesn’t look like a gambling den. The restaurant, founded by the recently deceased Jimmy Minadakis, has been in a fixture in the neighborhood for 30 years. The restaurant is now run by his wife and two sons. While Jimmy’s has hosted other kinds of gaming events in the past, this is its first hold ‘em tournament. Dealers and equipment for the tournament are provided by Amusement Vending, an operation owned by local businessman John Vontran. The proceeds collected from the game, according to several fliers, are going to a church charity. St. Joseph’s Greek Orthodox Church was supposed to benefit from the game, but calls to the church for comment were not returned.

When police and inspectors get to the second floor, they find about 40 tournament players, caught off guard by the invasion.

“This is a raid,” one officer says, “We’re going to detain everyone briefly, talk to a few people, and then we’ll let you leave.” A woman at the bar bursts into tears, but an older man comforts her, saying, “Don’t worry, you’re not going to jail. Relax.”

Four additional officers are called from the police department’s Organized Crime Division, Vice Section, the division usually involved in shutting down events like this one. Detective Sgt. Craig Gentile and three officers from Organized Crime arrive with the evidence kit. With John Minadakis, the organizer of the tournament, they count the money collected from paying customers. Stacks of $100 bills are laid out on a small table as the officers count the take. Eight chairs are set up on one end of the room so dealers and other involved parties can be questioned.

Card players are instructed to remain seated at their tables.

”Look, they brought the press,” one player mutters. “City Paper? You’ve got to be kidding me.” A red-shirted, slightly intoxicated man moves toward the chicken nuggets on the buffet table, but an officer instructs him to take his seat. All the players are told to remain seated around the tables, as the officers photograph each one and ask for identification.

“If Jimmy was still alive,” one player grumbles, “this wouldn’t have happened.”

Downstairs, Chris Minadakis says he knows little about the tournament, except that it was the first time anything like that had been held at Jimmy’s.

The tournament players start filing downstairs at about 11 p.m., after about two hours of photographing and ID checking. They look exhausted, bewildered, and exasperated. “Well,” one man laughs grimly, “that was a $200 buffet.”

A woman at the dining-room bar says that her heart goes out to them. “If they pay, let them play,” she says. “It’s their game, leave them alone.”

By midnight, the evening is over. Daniels, back in the dark conference hall of the Liquor Board, says he’s ready to go home and smoke a cigar.

“We had a good night,” he says. “We seized about $7,800 in cash and gave out five citations to the dealers.”

He has some sympathy for the players who’ve lost their cash: “It’s a fairly new phenomenon, and a lot of those people don’t understand the legal parameters.” But he also hopes they spread the word. “My interest was the message. I’m hoping they spread the word—we took the money, and they’re not getting it back.”

Sgt. Gentile of the OCD Vice Section, who was called in to direct the seizure of the tournament fees, says that the money will be submitted as evidence, and then placed in what he calls the “money room.” That money eventually goes back to the city, he says, and none will be returned to the tournament participants. Since Jimmy’s did not have a permit to conduct charitable gambling, he says, those involved may be criminally charged under Title 13, Subsection 5 of the Maryland Criminal Code.

John Vontran, who owns the vending company that provided the equipment and dealers for the tournament, and has provided the equipment for several major Baltimore Texas hold ’em tournaments in the past, says he has no involvement with the tournament itself. He says that when the police officers arrived he was taken completely by surprise.

“I was walking down the stairs, and this whole line of police officers meets me,” he says. “I was wondering, What the hell is going on? I mean I’m the director of the [Maryland State Licensed] Beverage Association. When you’re respected in the community, you don’t want to touch things like this.”

He says that his company, Amusement Vending, provides tables and equipment to events like this but “doesn’t touch the money.”

“The person who runs the tournament is the one who handles the money,” he says. “I have nothing to do with that, we just rent out the tables.”

Gentile asserts that all involved, including Vontran, may be subject to prosecution.

Daniels says the effort to crack down on tournaments like this one (“Wicked Game,” Mobtown Beat, Feb. 23) began with state Sen. George Della, who made inquiries last summer about the legality of charity Texas hold ’em tournaments becoming popular in and around Baltimore. Della, a Democrat, represents the 36th district, which contains Fells Point and Little Italy and includes more than 600 of the city’s bars. He says that new legislation should be passed that would allow these kinds of events to take place with special permits. As it is, he says, the city is using too many resources to enforce laws against charity tournaments.

“[OCD-Vice] has 11 people roving the city going into licensed liquor establishments,” Della says. “There are far more important things for 11 sworn police officers to be doing. . . . They scout the place out, they observe the crime, they raid the place, then take all the money—that money is taken even if they’re not guilty and held by the police until the crime is resolved.”

The state senator says the issue is “clouded” by the fact that some vending companies who run the games claim they will benefit nonprofit organizations, when in reality the company keeps the money. Della refrains from naming any vending company in particular, but he says he is sometimes skeptical about some of the so-called charity games.

Local vending companies include Fundraisers Unlimited, Amusement Vending, and O-Go Sales Inc. There is apparently little good feeling between vendors, who in interviews with City Paper accused one another of circumventing the law. Amusement Vending’s Vontran says that with some companies “95 percent of their take goes to bullshit charities.” Marsha Coe of Fundraisers Unlimited maintains that her company scrupulously records all donations but that there are other organizations that fail to do so. Daniels says that tips the Liquor Board responds to often come from competing tournament organizers, disgruntled employees, or tournament players who feel the jackpot was not fairly distributed.

Daniels says he hopes the raid will have a chilling effect on the organization of Texas hold ’em games—regardless of charitable intentions. Daniels says the city Liquor Board has sent out warnings to bar and restaurant owners telling them that such games are not permitted, but it seemed to have less impact than he had hoped. The raid on Jimmy’s may have helped get the message across.

“The word gets around,” he says. “These things are illegal, no matter what they say.”

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